Lawmakers accuse TSA of falsely classifying documents

Getty Images

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House criticized the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Thursday for allegedly falsely classifying documents to avoid scrutiny from Congress. 

The criticism followed a report from the House Oversight and Goverment Reform Committee that found the TSA has improperly labeled documents as classified under a category of aviation-related files known as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) since 2004. 

Republicans and Democrats on the panel said Thursday that the TSA was abusing the document classification. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“TSA has abusively and arbitrarily used the ‘Sensitive Security Information’ designation to hide information from Congress and the public about some ugly realities,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “Objective criteria based on real security concerns, and not whether a document reflects favorably or unfavorably on agency officials, must be the basis of any designation that attempts to limit its disclosure.  While this problem has not yet been resolved by TSA, this committee’s persistence has pushed a reform effort forward.”  

The top ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) agreed, though he gave the TSA credit for attempting to make some changes to its classification system.

“This report highlights TSA’s longstanding inconsistency with protecting Sensitive Security Information, including its improper designation and release against the advice of agency experts,” Cummings said. “TSA has made significant improvements to its procedures for handling Sensitive Security Information, and I am hopeful that the agency will make further changes to ensure that the process is transparent, the public has access to information it has the right to know, and that information is properly protected.”

TSA Office of Security Services and Assessments Division Director Annmarie Lontz defended the agency’s handling of classified documents.  

“The SSI program office is staffed by career professionals with significant experience and a comprehensive understanding of SSI and its role in transportation security,” Lontz said. 

“TSA has undertaken significant enhancements to the program’s policies, training and management … including updating the SSI training and making it mandatory for all TSA’s employees and contractors on an annual basis,” she continued. “While there is always room for improvement, I believe that TSA has in place a robust and mature SSI program for the safeguarding of sensitive but unclassified information.”

The SSI designation for documents related to air safety was created for the Federal Aviation Administration in 1974. The classification was extended to the TSA after the agency was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

Lontz said the TSA attempts to ensure that the SSI classification is only used when it is appropriate. 

“TSA understands the importance of the SSI designation and recognizes the value of transparency and the need for the public to have access to as much information as possible,” she said.  

The full study can be read here.