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Monday, December 14, 2009

TSA’s online gaffe shouldn’t be downplayed

We take off our shoes, our belts, our jewelry, our jackets and our coats. We display our toiletries in quart-sized, zip-top clear plastic bags. (Fold-over, gallon-sized bags are not permitted.) We drop our laptops taking them out of their carriers as ordered. We let strangers go through the stuff in our suitcases. We throw away bottles of liquid larger than 3.4 ounces.

And what do we get?

Our government puts secret guidelines for airport security on the Internet for the terrorists to see. Of all the busy, holiday-travel times for those people who say “I’m from TSA, I’m here to help you” to be caught messing up!

The Transportation Security Administration is one of those agencies we love to hate. Yes, there are some wonderful, cheerful folks who work long, dreary, boring hours making sure flights are safe. But there are also some extremely surly types who make you wish you’d taken a Greyhound bus.

And then there are some who post airport security manuals on the Internet detailing how screeners work, how screening is conducted and the limits and settings of X-ray machines and explosive detectors.

Alas, the “manualgate” scandal comes on the heels of the flap over the uninvited couple who crashed a White House State Dinner. The Secret Service, which, like TSA, is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is trying to figure out how two would-be reality TV stars not on the official guest list got into a reception and shook hands with the president.

Unflappable Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano assures us that the safety of the traveling public was never at risk. (How does she know since the investigation has just begun?) But she says that the agency for the time being will stop putting sensitive how-to documents designed for law enforcement officials on the Web enabling would-be terrorists to check them out.

The now infamous manual, a 2008 version, also has pictures of the identification badges and credentials of all kinds of VIPs, including CIA officials, senators and air marshals, which, as any moviegoer knows, would make life much more pleasant for bad guys.

We should all relax, Napolitano insisted, because there has been an “internal review” ordered. She conceded there might even be an “external review,” although that has not been decided, pending what the internal review finds and whether Congress stops fuming.

Those willing to dig enough can still find public copies of the 93-page manual (the redacted parts were easily reinstated by those with computer skills). Yet we’re supposed to be reassured because five TSA employees have been put on “administrative leave.”

Low-level Secret Service agents also were put on leave because of the pushy party-crashing couple’s antics. But because of “manualgate” we now know that certain foreign dignitaries, operatives and spies don’t have to go through airport screening because of the “Worldwide Operational Meet and Assist Program.”

According to the manual, if the CIA submits basic facts such as names, birthdates and itineraries, some foreigners zip right through security.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the Senate’s true experts on homeland security, complained at a public hearing that the breach is more serious than some in the government admit because it gives people “who would do us harm” a textbook on how to falsify documents. Does this mean all those badges and credentials will have to be redesigned?

Incidentally, the TSA is looking for a few good men and women who want jobs. TSA boasts: “Our people are committed Federal Employees who are highly skilled and trained. Our professional workforce is second to none in keeping both Americans and those who visit us safe and secure as they travel throughout the country.”

TSA team players can expect the “stability of a government job, ensuring national security, helping people, competitive pay and benefits, career growth opportunities, diverse workforce and a fast-paced job.” Believe it. It’s in the manual.

Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986 and can be reached at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.