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Sat, Mar 26, 2005

Aero-News Analysis: TSA Lied About Pax Data? (Part One)

DHS IG Report Snuck Out On Holiday Weekend

The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General, in a report released late on Good Friday, admitted that the TSA systematically misled almost everybody: individual citizens and travelers, reporters, FOIA act information requestors, the US Senate, DHS's own Chief Privacy Officer (!), Congress, and the Government Accountability Office --about the TSA's CAPPS II system and TSA's use and abuse of private personal name record (PNR) data, throughout 2003 and 2004.

"TSA officials made inaccurate statements regarding these transfers that undermined public trust in the agency," according to the report, signed by DHS Acting Inspector General Richard Skinner. The report resulted from widespread media reports of TSA misconduct in reference to the development of the CAPPS II screening database system.

Skinner danced with double-talk in an attempt to minimize the impact of these new revelations. "These misstatements were apparently not meant to mischaracterize known facts. Instead, they were premised on an incomplete understanding of the underlying facts." It's hard to cut to the core of what that statement is saying, but it appears to be, "they thought they were telling the truth but they were wrong." If that is truly what he meant, that conclusion is very, very hard to square with the facts in the report. (We have linked the actual report at the end of this story, so you can see for yourself).

TSA Spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr was quoted by the AP as saying, "The core of our mission is preserving our freedoms, and that means doing the utmost to protect every American's privacy." This is boilerplate and frequently uttered by TSA talking heads. For example, former director Loy said in March 2004, "in carrying out the TSA mission to secure our nation's transportation systems, we must respect and protect the privacy rights of all individuals we serve."

The report made public by TSA is redacted, so some of the most sensitive evidence that convicts or clears TSA of misconduct may be missing. Despite that, there was plenty of detail in the report. In areas where the report danced around names of persons, publications, or contractors, Aero-News has usually been able to find out who they mean.

TSA has taken a few grudging steps towards protecting traveler privacy since Congress threatened to cut off funds for the massive Secure Flight (formerly CAPPS II) database, which has been a centerpiece project for all three TSA Administrators. This new report is likely to raise further concerns.

This report was carefully written and carefully timed to minimize damage to the TSA and to its Secure Flight program, which is the cornerstone of TSA plans for the future. Despite that, it is an extremely dismaying glimpse at the culture of the Agency. The TSA's response to the report's recommendations (which this article didn't even get into) was in places defensive, even truculent, in its insistence that the TSA and its people have done nothing wrong. They refused the reasonable request to review the procedures that led to over a year of lies about the Jet Blue data. It would not be reaching too far to infer that for many TSA leaders and spokesmen, who are convinced that they are on a righteous mission of great national importance, "the end justifies the means." Giving an agency with that sort of culture the fruits of a massive data-mining scheme is like giving rocket fuel to a firebug.

The timing of this report is one indicator that TSA and DHS are circling the wagons, and are determined to fight it out, having decided that the public is the savages. To release a negative report on the Friday of a long holiday weekend is a time-honored dodge in Washington. In this particular case, it indicates that DHS is flying cover for TSA and doesn't want TSA leaders to bear any of the consequences for their misconduct -- or their previous false statements to the Congress, the press, and the public. It remains to be seen whether all those entities will take this lying down.

To Be Continued...


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