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TSA accidentally reveals airport security secrets

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Transportation Security Administration inadvertently revealed closely guarded secrets related to airport passenger screening practices when it posted online this spring a document as part of a contract solicitation, the agency confirmed Tuesday.

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The 93-page TSA operating manual details procedures for screening passengers and checked baggage, such as technical settings used by X-ray machines and explosives detectors. It also includes pictures of credentials used by members of Congress, CIA employees and federal air marshals, and it identifies 12 countries whose passport holders are automatically subjected to added scrutiny.

TSA officials said that the manual was posted online in a redacted form on a federal procurement Web site, but that the digital redactions were inadequate. They allowed computer users to recover blacked-out passages by copying and pasting them into a new document or an e-mail.

Current and former security officials called the breach troubling, saying it exposed TSA practices that were implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and expanded after the August 2006 disruption of a plot to down transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives. Checkpoint screening has been a fixture of the TSA's operations -- as well as a lightning rod for public criticism of the agency's practices.

Stewart A. Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said that the manual will become a textbook for those seeking to penetrate aviation security and that its leaking was serious.

"It increases the risk that terrorists will find a way through the defenses," Baker said. "The problem is there are so many different holes that while [the TSA] can fix any one of them by changing procedures and making adjustments in the process . . . they can't change everything about the way they operate."

Another former DHS official, however, called the loss a public relations blunder but not a major risk, because TSA manuals are shared widely with airlines and airports and are available in the aviation community.

"While it's certainly a type of document you would not want to be released . . . it's not something a determined expert couldn't find another way," the official said.

Criticism from Congress was scathing. Sen. Susan M. Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, called the document's release "shocking and reckless."

"This manual provides a road map to those who would do us harm," she said.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the panel's chairman, called the breach "an embarrassing mistake" that impugns the judgment of managers at the TSA, which is still without a permanent administrator 11 months into the Obama administration. Nominee Erroll Southers, a Los Angeles airports police executive, is awaiting a confirmation vote in the Senate.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) also wrote acting TSA Administrator Gale D. Rossides, saying they are were "deeply concerned" about the disclosures and calling for an independent government investigation.

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