Feds Subpoena Bloggers For Posting TSA Security Memo

December 30, 2009 2:20 p.m.

Federal agents went to the homes of two bloggers Tuesday to issue subpoenas in an effort to find out who leaked them a memo on the Transportation Security Administration’s enhanced security procedures in the wake of the failed Christmas Day terror attack. The agents looked through the computer, Blackberry, and iPhone of one of the bloggers, and told him they’d sit outside his house until he gave them the information they wanted, he says.

On Sunday, Chris Elliott, a well-regarded travel journalist who writes for National Geographic, MSNBC, and the Washington Post, published on his blog a TSA security directive, issued in the hours after the failed bombing incident. The directive, which went to airline, airport, and government personnel, outlined enhanced screening procedures, including performing a “thorough pat-down of all passengers at boarding gate prior to boarding, concentrating on upper legs and torso.”

Around the same time, Steven Frischling, who writes a blog for KLM Dutch Royal airlines, posted the same directive.Two days later, agents for the TSA, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, visited both men at home, and issued them subpoenas.

“Security Directives are not for public disclosure,” a TSA spokesman said in a statement to TPMmuckraker. “TSA’s Office of Inspections is currently investigating how the recent Security Directives were acquired and published by parties who should not have been privy to this information.”

Elliott posted the subpoena he received on his blog. It demands, under penalty of imprisonment, “[a]ll documents, emails, and/or faxsimile transmissions (sic) in your control possession or control concerning your receipt of TSA Security Directive 1544-09-06 dated December 25, 2009.”

Elliott declined to speak on the record to TPMmuckraker, pending legal advice. Frischling did not respond to an email seeking comment, but he described the visit — and the agents’ use of hardball tactics — in an interview with Wired.

“They came to the door and immediately were asking, ‘Who gave you this document?, Why did you publish the document?’ and ‘I don’t think you know how much trouble you’re in,” Frischling told the magazine.

Frischling said the agents were armed, and didn’t mention a subpoena until an hour into their visit. “They were indicating there would be significant ramifications if I didn’t cooperate,” he said, adding “It’s not hard to intimidate someone when they’re holding a 3-year-old [child] in their hands. My wife works at night. I go to jail, and my kids are here with nobody.” He said they told him they’d sit outside his house until they got the information they wanted.

The agents appear to have been determined to follow every lead — to the point of absurdity. Wired reports:

The agents searched through Frischling’s Blackberry and iPhone and questioned him about a number of phone numbers and messages in the devices. One number listed in his phone under “ICEMOM” was a quick dial to his mother, in case of emergency. The agents misunderstood the acronym and became suspicious that it was code for his anonymous source and asked if his source worked for ICE — the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Frischling noted to Wired that the memo had been sent out broadly to airport and airline personnel who would play roles in the enhanced security. “They’re saying it’s a security document but it was sent to every airport and airline,” he said. “It was sent to Islamabad, to Riyadh and to Nigeria. So they’re looking for information about a security document sent to 10,000-plus people internationally. You can’t have a right to expect privacy after that.”

The TSA may be particularly sensitive right now about its security procedures — and its strategy for communicating them to the public. In the wake of the failed attack, the agency was criticized for issuing a vague statement about additional screening measures, without offering details — causing confusion for millions of holiday travelers.

It appears to have been a desire to clear up this confusion that prompted both bloggers to publish the directive. Elliott wrote that he was posting the document “since the government has been unresponsive to my requests to clarify its new security measures.” Frischling wrote that he posted it “[b]ecause following the failed terrorist attack on the 25th of December there was a lot of confusion and speculation surrounding changes in airline & airport security procedures.”

In addition, earlier this month a TSA contractor posted a sensitive screening manual on a government site, revealing details like which passengers are most likely to be subject to screenings. The TSA put five workers on leave pending an investigation into the incident.

Frischling told Wired that after talking to a lawyer, he’s decided to cooperate with TSA, since he doesn’t know the identity of his source, and isn’t protected by a federal shield law — though that may not be the case for long.

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