TSA Secrecy Rules Eased

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Congress has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to ease secrecy rules at the Transportation Security Administration, helping families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who have sued to unearth security practices before then.

A $34.8 billion homeland security spending bill signed by President Bush last week requires the department to release "security sensitive information" that is more than three years old and is not part of existing plans or certain categories, barring "a rational reason" cited by Secretary Michael Chertoff that it should remain secret.

Congress ordered that SSI-designated evidence be released in civil cases with some restrictions if required by a judge, unless such access "presents a risk of harm to the nation."

In a statement, Michael Low of Batesville, Ark., thanked Congress on behalf of 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism "for telling TSA not to misuse the term 'national security' as an excuse to hide documents that are of no use to would-be terrorists but instead contain information embarrassing to our government and the airlines." Low is the father of Sara Low, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11.

About 50 survivors' suits targeting airlines and security firms are before the U.S. Southern District of New York, as is a broader case against terrorist financing.

The White House opposed the change, which it said would impose "an ongoing, burdensome review process."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, called the legislation "surprising" and a "welcome gesture by Congress to push back against expanding secrecy."

SSI includes airport security plans, vulnerability assessments and technical specifications of screening equipment, but TSA's definition is open-ended. The program has been invoked to withhold information about bomb scares at airports and to drop cases against screeners charged with stealing from passengers, for example.

It has raised concerns that local law enforcement may not be able to issue reports about incidents at airports, or that passengers stopped by security officers may not learn why they were stopped.

-- Spencer S. Hsu

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