Oh look, I forgot to do a blog entry for tonight. I thought I had them all done for the week. Those of you who read the comments on The Wings Stayed On! know that I was just ruminating over whether to blog about the US federal crackdown on someone using bloggers to leak the TSA security directives enacted immediately after the Christmas Day underwear bomber incident on NW253. I guess that settles it: this will be today's entry, then.
Within hours of the discovery of a man who tried to blow up an a airplane using explosives concealed in his underpants, the TSA provided airlines with a new set of security rules to add to all the existing ones. That's a pretty quick reaction on the second most major holiday on the American calendar. I don't know the exact method of dissemination but getting this thing in the hands of everyone who had to know about it was probably some combination of fax, e-mail and hand delivery. The complete text is here in an entry by Steven Frischling on his blog Flying with Fish.
Almost all the rules in the document are things that passengers had to submit to or were not allowed to do. To summarize, all passengers (with the exception of heads of state) and their carry-ons must be re-scrutinized at the boarding gate with a physical pat-down; for the last hour of international flight to a US destination passengers must remain in their seats with nothing on their lap and no access to carry-on baggage; passengers may have no external communication nor real time information about the flight path. There are no secret codes in the security directive, and nothing that you wouldn't learn from taking a flight while subject to the regulations. Just those rules.
Obviously all flight attendants, pilots, boarding area staff and their supervisors would have to know this information. That includes such staff members of foreign carriers operating into the US. The document, as is standard for such documents, requires acknowledgment by the airline and prohibits further dissemination of "this document or information contained herein." So the TSA have made it technically illegal for the airline to specify to passengers what they are required to do or not do. The airlines callously ignored this, and if you travelled across the border over Christmas you know that most of the elements of that document were repeatedly yelled, broadcast, or posted for your attention before and during your flight.
The reason the complete text appears on Flying with Fish (and another blog, Elliott) is that someone along that chain of distribution leaked the document to a number of bloggers. Those two posted it.
Aviation security was not compromised. The entire procedure as experienced by the passengers had been tweeted, texted, blogged, relayed by old fashioned word of mouth and even published in mainstream media before the blogs went live with it. Maybe the bit about no locational PAs would take a while to deduce. Perhaps no one had yet noticed the exception for the heads of state. But nothing in it is or should be secret. It should have been posted on the TSA website for passengers to read before embarkation.
Both bloggers who posted the text of the document were subpoenaed by the feds. Both subpoenas have since been dropped. Fish had his MacBook damaged in the process (perhaps it was dropped too?) but he has faith that the feds will do the right thing and replace it, so that episode is over. I don't know whether it is because they found the leak, realized that there was nothing harmful in it, or decided there was no point in trying to stop information being passed on when it was so widely disseminated to foreign nationals in the first place.
The concept of secret rules that must be obeyed without being communicated does explain why people over the last eight years have suddenly found themselves being arrested for queuing for the restroom and other "what was I doing wrong? where is this written down?" offenses. It's illegal for you to do it and it's illegal for the airlines to tell you it's illegal. I don't like that.
I can see the screening policy and things like secondary screening criteria being guarded; I don't mind rules giving airline personnel some leeway for interpretation and enforcement, but the actual RULES should be public and known. I want to live in a society where the rules are publicly available and subject to public debate. If there's a secret rule out there saying that my government can make secret rules, then I want a new government.Update:
Today, the Transportation Security Administration issued new security directives to all United States and international air carriers with inbound flights to the U.S. effective January 4, 2010.
The new directive includes long-term, sustainable security measures developed in consultation with law enforcement officials and our domestic and international partners.
Once again the changes are secret, distributed only to the airlines, so you won't know what you are doing wrong until they tell you.