TSA puts 5 employees on leave over online posting

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 5:20pm

WASHINGTON – Five Transportation Security Administration employees have been placed on administrative leave since it was discovered that sensitive guidelines about airport passenger screening were posted on the Internet.

The move was disclosed as senators questioned administration officials Wednesday about the second embarrassing security flap at the Homeland Security Department in as many weeks. The Secret Service, also part of the sprawling department, is investigating how a couple of would-be reality TV stars were able to get into a White House state dinner without an invitation.

Assistant Homeland Security secretary David Heyman told senators Wednesday that a full investigation into the Internet security lapse is under way and the TSA employees have been taken off duty pending the results of that probe. He did not say how many employees were put on leave. A TSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said five employees were placed on administrative leave Tuesday.

The Homeland Security Department has also stopped posting documents with security information either in full or in part on the Internet until the TSA review is complete, Heyman told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a separate hearing by the Senate Judiciary committee Wednesday that the department is taking steps to make sure this never happens again, and the department's inspector general is conducting its own investigation.

Napolitano added, however, that "the traveling public was not at risk."

The passenger screening document was improperly on the Internet in a way that could offer insight into how to sidestep security.

"Even what appeared to be an innocent posting to help federal contractors can have serious consequences for our security," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday.

Heyman said he did not know who at TSA signed off on the document going on the Web.

The TSA removed the document from the Internet on Sunday after the lapse was reported on a blog.

Among many sensitive sections, the document outlines who is exempt from certain additional screening measures, including members of the U.S. armed forces, governors and lieutenant governors, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and their immediate families.

It also offers examples of identification documents that screeners accept, including congressional, federal air marshal and CIA ID cards; and it explains that diplomatic pouches and certain foreign dignitaries with law enforcement escorts are not subjected to any screening at all. It said certain methods of verifying identification documents aren't used on all travelers during peak travel crushes.

TSA said the document is now outdated. It was posted in March by TSA on the Federal Business Opportunity site. The posting was improper because sensitive information was not properly protected, TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said.

As a result, some Web sites, using widely available software, were able to uncover the original text of sections that had been blacked out for security reasons. On Sunday, the Wandering Aramean blog pointed out the document in a posting titled "The TSA makes another stupid move."

According to the blog, TSA posted a redacted version of the document but did not delete the sensitive information from the file. Instead of removing the text, the government covered it up with a black box. But the text was still embedded in the document and could be uncovered.

TSA had the document removed from the Federal Business Opportunity site on Dec. 6 but copies — with the redacted portions exposed — circulated on the Internet and remain posted on other Web sites not controlled by the government.

Noting that the transportation agency uses multiple layers of security, Lee said, "TSA is confident that screening procedures currently in place remain strong."

The document also describes these screening protocols:

_Individuals with a passport from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, or Algeria, should be given additional screening unless there are specific instructions not to.

_Aircraft flight crew members in uniform with valid IDs are not subject to restrictions on liquid, gel, aerosol and footwear.

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said the document is not something a security agency would want to inadvertently post online, but he said it's not a road map for terrorists. "Hyperventilating that this is a breach of security that's going to endanger the public is flat wrong," Hawley said.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., was more concerned.

"Undoubtedly, this raises potential security concerns across our transportation system," Thompson wrote the agency Tuesday in a letter recommending that an independent federal agency review the incident. The chairwoman of the panel's transportation security subcommittee, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, also signed the letter.

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