In the wake of last Friday’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began to impose some temporary security screening measures, including thorough pat downs and limitations on what passengers can do during the last hour of flight. However, for two travel bloggers, posting the unclassified details about these procedures (which expired on December 30) resulted in home visits and civil subpoenas from TSA agents.
Fortunately, it looks like sanity has prevailed and the subpoenas and legal action have been withdrawn and the government agency has apologized for the strong-arm tactics that were used. Still, the entire situation sheds some light on how government agencies are able to respond to the age of real-time instantaneous communication.
The TSA issued its enhanced security directive on December 25. This directive was sent to airlines and airports around the world, giving a rundown of some new temporary screening procedures and in-flight passenger restrictions.
This non-classified document was posted on a number of blogs and even some airline websites. On the 26th, we linked to the New York Times’ article on the new procedures. Although the NYT piece didn’t contain the document verbatim, it seems clear that the author of that post had access to the document or at the very least had a source with access to the document.
However, when bloggers Steven Frischling and Christopher Elliott posted this information, they were treated with home visits from TSA agents, threats and subpoenas.
The Line Between Security and Freedom of the Press
The public outcry over these actions led the agency to investigate matters and ultimately, do the right thing, but it’s still an unfortunate situation.
In countries like the United States that have laws protecting the press, how the press is defined in a world that is increasingly comprised of self-publishers and online entities becomes an important question. In this case, it seems clear that two TSA agents overreacted to the online publication of non-classified information.
Still, we have to question if more “traditional” print journalists would have been questioned or harassed.
It’s understandable that the US government wants to keep its security documents as guarded as possible — after all, national security can often depend on their plans staying private — however, we hope that government agencies will take a more level-headed approach in the future when dealing with the press, online or off.