Can I tell you a secret about airport security?

If you think the American government keeps too many secrets, you should meet Jose Lacson.

Lacson lost his job as a federal air marshal in 2011 after allegedly disclosing “unauthorized” information to the public. The TSA says he published what it calls “sensitive security information” (SSI) in a website forum.

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But here’s the interesting thing: In an appeal to his dismissal, Lacson claims the posts were fictional. The information referenced the number, deployment, and attrition rate of federal air marshals hired at various times and deployed at various duty stations, according to a report.

I repeat: Lacson says he made it all up.

The government doesn’t care. If it wants to consider Lacson’s tall tales SSI, it has every right to. But the fact is, pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down at the airport is considered SSI these days.

SSI didn’t start with the TSA — it has statutory roots that go back to 1974 — but the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems oversaw an unprecedented expansion of it. SSI is now applied to a sweeping range of subjects, from descriptions of scanners to screener test scores to unsolicited business proposals. And it’s all off-limits to the traveling public and the taxpayers who pay for everything.

SSI and me

I learned how fast and loose the TSA can be with the SSI label when it refused to reveal the new security precautions it would take after the failed underwear bomber incident in 2009. Over a busy holiday weekend, the agency decided to say nothing about what air travelers should expect, so I found the memo and posted it to my consumer advocacy site.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security served me with a subpoena, demanding that I reveal the source of the document. I refused, and the agency dropped its request a few days later.

After that, I started to see SSI everywhere.

Former agents like this one alleged that the TSA used the SSI classification to cover up anything it wanted to, or at the very least, to keep important information from the public.

That’s not a new charge. Back in 2006, former Federal Aviation Administration Special Agent Brian Sullivan publicly accused the TSA of misclassifying information. “I know from first-hand experience that roughly 95 percent of the materials that are labeled SSI have no national security value and should be released to help the American people arm ourselves against future terrorist attacks,” he said in a statement. One reason, he noted, was that the TSA was “acting to protect the old FAA, the airlines, and the screening companies from legal liability.”

There have been some positive changes since then, but not nearly enough. I still hear from screeners who tell me the TSA loves its secrets. And the TSA persists in slapping the SSI label on anything that moves.

A congressman runs afoul of SSI

Consider what happened back in 2011, when the Department of Homeland Security accused Rep. Jason Chaffetz of disclosing sensitive information during a Congressional hearing. Chaffetz’s “crime”? The Utah Republican, who was serving as the chairman of an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, mentioned that in the past 10 years there have been 25,000 security breaches at the nation’s airports.


A Homeland Security lawyer reportedly sent the congressman a letter saying that his “breach” was a “matter of serious concern.”

“The purpose of [sensitive security information protocols] is to protect the traveling public by ensuring that security information is not made available to those who seek to do our country harm,” he said in the letter. “The document publicly disclosed by your subcommittee contained information about past security breaches, a topic of particular interest to our adversaries.”

Coincidentally, the document also reveals how effective — or ineffective — the agency has been. At any rate, there have been no terrorist attacks since then. So maybe the TSA overreacted?

But classifying something fictional as SSI is a new level of absurdity. The problem is, we may never know if Lacson’s posts were filled with fake information. The court brief is largely blacked out.

Government lawyers say the truth is irrelevant in this case. The TSA, it argues,”may reasonably determine that certain statements, although not technically accurate, may nevertheless disclose security vulnerabilities because they reveal a concept or general state of affairs that should be protected in the interest of transportation.”

When it comes to airport security, that argument may be indicative of the government’s attitude. Apparently, the sky’s the limit.

Does the TSA have too many secrets?

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35 thoughts on “Can I tell you a secret about airport security?

  1. Welcome to dealing with a government agency. During my time in the Army, I was always shocked on what was considered classified information (FOUO to TS SCI or For Official Use Only to Top Secret Special Compartmentalized Information). Some of the information I saw that was classified Secret was information available in the press (in fact one of the briefings used illustrations from a national magazine) but the DOD didn’t want to confirm the information. FOUO was limited to things like phone rosters. Ultimately, DHS is stuck in this situation. Rule number one when dealing with classified information is that you have to deal with all potential breaches the same way. Even if the “breach” is only someone’s fictional account. Otherwise, you confirm that the information is legit in the cases where you do react. I’m sure that Lacson signed a classified information agreement not to divulge anything real or imaginary and he violated that agreement.

  2. Well, it’s good to see that Blogger Bob still reads the site (thus explaining the one vote so far in TSA’s favor).

    In the end, I can’t say whether TSA’s abuses of “SSI” are any worse than any other government agency, but they’re more likely abuses some of us are going run across more often, as TSA is more visible than most government agencies.

    1. Couldn’t vote because I don’t care. What I’m hearing is some guy used to be an air marshall, published stuff he KNEW he shouldn’t, then as a defense said, “I’m a pathetic liar who published stuff that I just made up.”

      Wait — we’re supposed to believe his defense that he’s a liar and is intentionally deceptive? Does anybody see the irony in his defense? He’s basically saying, “Trust me — I’m a liar.” Ummmm……….

  3. I had to vote no. If I knew the answer then I could vote yes but then I would have to vote no because they wouldn’t have too many secrets if I knew the answer…….

    From my experience all government departments classify some information at too high a level either because they do not want their errors to be publicized or they really are not sure whether it should be classified at all so they go overboard.

    1. “But who cares?”

      See, it’s views like this that make me think that the people who spout them should have TSA follow them around 24/7.

      1. cjr001, don’t worry; sooner or later, you’ll get your wish. The pathogen that is the TSA is infecting everything. So people like that can then do their “o woe is me how did this ever happen” routine. And the rest of us can sit back and laugh. Blowback is a bitch.

    2. Until they develop safe teleportation, the only way I can visit family is to fly. I live on the West Coast, they live on the East Coast.

      1. WHAT!!!! When did they tear up all the roads and railroads to prevent cross country travel? Flying is not your *ONLY* way. It is more the most * CONVENIENT* way though.

      2. Wow Ann… I didn’t realize that people didn’t travel from the West Coast until 1903 when the Wright Brothers performed their first flight … I guess all of those rail lines, that AMTRAK still uses, were absent of people. I guess all freight moves by air instead of by road too. Thanks for the lesson

  4. Some fifty or so years ago, a summer intern working for a small defense contractor observed certain characteristics about two-part polymeric adhesives used to bond solid rocket propellants. Using Roman Squares testing methods the student’s work served to improve the temperature range over which the equipment could operate. On return to university, the student requested a copy of the paper that had been submitted for use in a thesis on statistical analysis only to learn that the paper was now classified at a level for which the student did not have clearance.
    This silliness didn’t start with the TSA

    1. LOL … Charlie I ran into the same issue working for GM on my Master’s Degree that they were paying for. I had to prove I was solving problems for the class I was in but any time I identified a problem, GM restricted the use of any information associated with it. I had to get the Quality Manager and Plant Manager’s signatures to turn in my thesis project!

    2. I’m sure you can understand the situation wherein someone authors a paper, not intending for it to become classified, but, because of perhaps an unintended result, becomes classified; that’s not too difficult to fathom. And if the results of the paper are unexpected, it’s certainly understandable that the author didn’t have the proper classification level to begin with. So, you’re left with the rather ironic situation that the author doesn’t have the classification level to view his/her own work. Ironic but understandable. What would you have the company/agency do when this person asks for a copy? Read the author in for this one paper? Send him classified documents through the mail, to be stored in his apartment?

    1. Even if it wasn’t security related, he’d be in hot water at any private company for doing something like this. Say you start posting blogs about people quitting and basically disparaging the company you work for. Even if the stories are fictional, the company is real. You’d get reprimanded or canned outright virtually anywhere for doing something like this. Classifying fictional stuff as SSI is obviously absurd, but this guy would have been fired by any employer for what he did.

  5. This example looks crazy up front (they’re classifying fictional stories!) but when you look at it more closely there’s definitely method to the madness. Obviously, there’s good reason for the TSA to keep secrets regarding how air marshals are deployed. And we don’t know for certain that Lacson really made up everything or if he’s just saying that to try and save his job. ( Part or all of it could actually of been true, making it obvious why it would be classified.) But even assuming it was all pure fiction, releasing the details would still reveal details about air marshall staffing because you’d know that however they staff, it WASN’T how this guy said they did it.

  6. All government agencies have too many secrets, but that’s not germane to Lacson’s firing. If he was an at-will employee, he could be fired for any reason, including being the jerk he obviously is.

    1. Air Marshall are usually federal employees and thus he most likely falls under civil service regulations. Firing civil service employees requires actual reasons. In this case it appears they are terminating his employment for discussing means & methods which are classified.

  7. This weekend, I was flying from PBI to JFK. The airport was almost empty – hardly anyone going through the security area. When I put all my stuff in the bucket to go through the screener, I showed the agent my plastic bag with two sealed yogurt containers in it and nicely said, “This is my meal – it’s yogurt.” (just in case it looked odd going through the xray). Her response (with a surly attitude): “OH NO. YOU CANNOT TAKE THAT. You’ll have to throw it out.” I said, “Even if it’s in the quart-size plastic bag?” her simple response: “NO. THROW IT OUT.”
    So…their rule that you can carry “liquids” in your carry on so long as they fit into the quart-size zip-loc bag is totally arbitrary.
    Note: Have there been any yogurt bombers?

    Oh, and to follow up on a comment I made about a week ago, in JFK (JetBlue), the floors around the entire TSA security area were FILTHY. I really meant to bring some crappy socks but I forgot. So my nice clean socks were dirty when I put my shoes back on. In PBI, however, the floors were carpeted. They weren’t super clean but they were cleaner than the JFK floors.

    So the overall attitude is to degrade people as much as possible and make sure to start off everyone’s trips by demeaning them and putting them in a bad mood.

  8. I always enjoy the comments that follow any article that Christopher writes on the TSA. I’m Australian and once upon a time my wife and I travelled many times to the United States but after our 7 time run-ins with the TSA on our 2004 visit we’ve never been back. It was hard explaining why to the many friends I had but the vast majority of them seemed to understand. I’m not sure that the American Tourism people understand just how many tourists never return after an encounter with your TSA.

    1. OzJohnno, you’re right, and I apologize on behalf of my pathetic, embarrassingly benighted country. I’ve told my European friends they shouldn’t come here anymore and warned them what to expect if they do.

      I’ve published more times than I can count the statistics showing that while tourism in the world overall is up, foreign tourism to the U.S. is down. Even the mainstream NYT has published stories on this, quoting surveys of foreign tourists who say they’re afraid of our entire, bloated “security” apparatus — the TSA, CBP, Immigration. That they’re treated like shit and are sick of it.

      The tourism industry itself has taken note of this; unfortunately, its only reply so far has been a feeble attempt at PR, with catchy slogans and slick ads.

      1. Not to mention a new “tourist tax” in the form of ESTA fees and the Visa fees (not to mention the fee to get an appointment to try to pay the visa fee !!!) …

  9. secrets will never remain as one forever.. but you will never know when someone is telling the truth..unless they spiel it out..

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