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Bipartisan Oversight Report Finds Flawed Sensitive Information Designation Process at Transportation Security Administration

May 29, 2014
Press Release

WASHINGTON – In conjunction with this morning’s hearing, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) and Ranking Member Gerry Connolly (D-VA) today released a joint investigative staff report titled, “Pseudo-Classification of Executive Branch Documents: Problems with the Transportation Security Administration’s Use of the Sensitive Security Information Designation.”

Through witness testimony and documents, the Committee’s investigation found significant problems with the Transportation Security Administration’s application of the “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) designation.  As the agency charged with the security of the traveling public, the TSA has faced a number of management challenges in the areas of public screening and treatment of passengers.  Problems with TSA’s application of the SSI designation date back to 2004, including inconsistent application of the designation.  TSA’s Office of Public Affairs has adhered to the SSI designation process selectively, at times choosing to release unclassified information designated as SSI without regard to the advice of TSA’s SSI Office or any formal review process.  In other cases, TSA has improperly designated certain information as SSI in order to avoid its public release and according to a whistleblower, to prevent embarrassment.

Chairman Issa: “TSA has abusively and arbitrarily used the ‘Sensitive Security Information’ designation to hide information from Congress and the public about some ugly realities.  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.”

Ranking Member Cummings: “This report highlights TSA’s longstanding inconsistency with protecting Sensitive Security Information, including its improper designation and release against the advice of agency experts.  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.”

Rep. Mica: “This report confirms that TSA gamed the system to use security classifications to keep Congress and the public from having access to key information in order to protect their turf.  TSA must end its arbitrary use of Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and ensure that security and accountability to the public are its primary concerns.”

Rep. Connolly:“Federal agencies must strike a delicate balance between safeguarding sensitive, but unclassified, information and honoring the fundamental open-government principle that taxpayers have a right to information that was collected at their expense.  The proliferation of hundreds of vague, confusing policies and markings to control SBU information is a long-standing problem that transcends any single Presidential Administration.  As our report indicates, TSA has struggled to effectively manage so-called sensitive security information, but as a result of diligent, bipartisan oversight, the agency is finally making much-needed improvements to its policy.”

Following a congressional request to review how TSA used its SSI authority to withhold information from the public, GAO released a report in 2005 that found that TSA lacked adequate internal controls to provide reasonable assurance that the agency was applying the SSI designation consistently.  In late 2011, a whistleblower contacted the Committee with information regarding TSA officials’ misuse of the SSI designation.  As a result, Committee investigators conducted four transcribed interviews with current and former TSA SSI Office staff and obtained hundreds of pages of documents responsive to document requests made to TSA.  The joint investigative staff report details the Committee’s findings and recommendations. 

Specifically, the investigative report found:

·         Problems with TSA’s application of the SSI designation date back to 2004, including inconsistent application of the designation.

·         TSA improperly designated certain information as SSI in order to avoid its public release.

·         TSA has repeatedly released information to the public against the advice of the SSI Office and without having produced suitable documentation to explain the decision.

·         The structure and position of the SSI Office within TSA has contributed to the difficulties the office has encountered in carrying out its mission.  TSA has moved the office within the agency’s organizational structure several times.  One official stated the office moves have effectively relegated it a “throwaway office.”

·         TSA made significant improvements to its SSI designation process following the Committee’s investigation.

You can read the Oversight joint investigative staff report here.

You can watch this morning’s Government Operations Subcommittee hearing here.

113th Congress