TSA subpoenas, threatens two bloggers who published non-classified airline security directive


(Courtesy of Wired: "TSA Special Agent John Enright, left, speaks to Steven Frischling outside the blogger's home in Niantic, Connecticut, after returning Frischling's laptop Wednesday." Photo: Thomas Cain/Wired.com)

(Update post here, Dec. 31, 2009.)

On Friday, December 25, following the incident in which a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a US-bound flight, the TSA issued an urgent, non-classified security directive to thousands of contacts around the world—airlines, airports, and so on. On Saturday, December 26, airlines and airports around the world further circulated that emailed document and began implementing the procedures described. On Sunday December 27, two bloggers published the content of the TSA directive online (some portions had already been showing up on airline websites). And on Tuesday, December 29, Special Agents from the TSA's Office of Inspection showed up at the homes of bloggers Steven Frischling and Christopher Elliott, and interrogated each on where they obtained the document. Both bloggers received civil subpoenas.

Snip from Wired piece by Kim Zetter:

"They came to the door and immediately were asking, 'Who gave you this document?, Why did you publish the document?' and 'I don't think you know how much trouble you're in.' It was very much a hardball tactic," [Frischling] says.

(...) The agents then said they wanted to take an image of his hard drive. Frischling said they had to go to WalMart to buy a hard drive, but when they returned were unable to get it to work. Frischling said the keyboard on his laptop was no longer working after they tried to copy his files. The agents left around 11 p.m. but came back Wednesday morning and, with Frischling's consent, seized his laptop, which they promised to return after copying the hard drive.

Here's Frischling's post. He says he received the document from an anonymous source known to be a TSA employee, who uses a gmail account (will Google be subpoenaed?). "I received it, I read it, I posted it. Why did I post it? Because following the failed terrorist attack on the 25th of December there was a lot of confusion and speculation surrounding changes in airline & airport security procedures."

Here is Elliot's post about his visit from a friendly TSA Special Agent named Flaherty. "[T]he TSA wants me to tell them who gave me the security directive. I told Flaherty I'd call my attorney and get back to him. What would you do?"

Here at Boing Boing, I linked to Frischling's leak post on Monday, December 28. Two days earlier, I'd flown home to the US on an international flight during which I personally experienced the procedures detailed in the directive. I tweeted what I experienced of those procedures before, during, and after my flight on the 26th. Thorough physical patdowns and secondary hand luggage screening pre-board, no leaving your seat or electronics or putting anything on your lap during the final hour of flight, and so on. Attendants on my flight explained that the stepped-up procedures came from a just-issued TSA security directive. As soon as airlines and airports began implementing the directive—and that began before the bloggers posted their copies—the contents of the directive were no secret. So why the strong-arm tactics?

Read more: New York Times story, Wired News story, and Huffington Post.

Related: Just weeks ago, a TSA contract worker posted an improperly redacted sensitive screening manual on a government website.


  1. These are not subpoenas TSA is looking to employ them. TSA needs help to pull their collective heads out of asses.

  2. I liked the part about the Homeland Security agents getting suspicious about the identity of “ICEMOM” on Frischling’s phone. Aha! Did Frischling’s secret source work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)? Uh, no, that was Frischling’s quick dial for his mom, In Case of Emergency.

  3. So the TSA’s response is to harass our citizens with breathtaking incompetence and impotent threats. If I don’t tell you who sent me the information, you’ll… wait outside my house until I do? Knock yourself out, chief. Maybe I’ll make you some hot chocolate after I get this webcam set up.

    One of the new rules is that the pilots won’t announce when the plane is near landmarks or over cities, and they’re turning off the tv and flight maps for passengers. Are they going to paint over the windows?

    I bet you could cause these bedwetters to turn a flight around just by looking at a stopwatch periodically.

    And maybe it is time for some civil… not disobedience, exactly. Just mockery. Because the TSA has proven itself worse than useless. It should be disbanded. The millions of productive hours and billions of dollars per year we’d get in return would be a nice boost to our economy.

    And as a nation we’d earn some self-respect.

  4. TSA = Terminally Stupid Asshats.

    First, they publish a completely useless and ineffective “new set of policies” which utterly fail to address any aspect of the underlying problems which allowed a known terrorist to pass 3 levels of security and board a flight.

    Then, the idiot chief of Homeland Security goes on a nationwide press briefing journey to tell everyone that “The system worked”.

    Now, they chase after 2 guys who did not a single thing wrong.

    Oh, I left out the two events in December where the TSA published ON ITS OWN WEBSITE a manual which tells terrorists the maximum size of wire that can be used in a bomb but go undetected by the XRay machines, ALONG WITH photographs of the badges and credentials that will allow a person, such as an air marshall, to completely bypass TSA screening. The *other* event in December, was the TSA publishing, ON ITS OWN WEBSITE, the exact make, model, and ammunition specs for the guns that are issued to Air Marshalls…..just in case the terrorists want to complete their impersonation of an Air Marshall, avoid screening, and get onto a plane while heavily armed.

    Seriously. Time to disassemble the TSA. Start over. Hire actual professionals.

  5. I appreciated Xeni’s tweets as I was preparing to travel on Dec. 27th. When I’m away, I don’t usually check major websites, but do keep up with Twitter on my iPhone.

    The TSA should not be harassing those helping to dispense useful information that travelers can use to navigate the unnecessarily long procedures at airports.

  6. TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 13 > § 242Prev | Next
    § 242. Deprivation of rights under color of law

    How Current is This?
    Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

  7. I found all the information made available on Christmas day to be very helpful in preparing my husband for his flight out of the country on the 29th. Because of these articles we knew he would be subject to pat downs, so he wasn’t nervous when that actually happened. It’s common knowledge that if TSA detects supposed signs of nervousness they’ll hold you in a little room and question you about that too. Me, I’d rather be prepared.

    I am grateful that bloggers are getting the info out as it comes in and I can’t imagine how this was expected to remain a secret as more and more people were flying and experiencing it for themselves. Honestly it boggles my mind that this tax-funded outfit has all the power to act out as they please on innocent civilian journalists. Seriously, what’s this country coming to?

  8. It’s simple. The TSA was attempting to implement random security measures to gain the advantage of surprise, and they were angry when the details of their plan were posted online for everyone to see, thus removing that advantage. That the plan was sent to 10,000+ people beforehand is not considered counterproductive, because 10,000+ people were needed to implement the plan. This is doublethink at its finest.

  9. What I’d like to know – and I admit I haven’t researched what may be readily available info – is who are these numbskulls at the TSA who can just make up and implement new (ineffective) security procedures? What are their limitations? (“Before you can get on the plane, TSA procedures require each of you to place your underwear on your head and sing ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ in latin…”)

    The only news is that they won’t confirm Errol Southers, and that someone named Gale Rossides is in charge in the interim. Did Gale come up with these pat down procedures herself? Did she sic agents on those two bloggers? Is there some shadowy group of advisers that makes these decisions? I’d just like to know whom to harass/ridicule.

  10. Seriously Steven? You voluntarily let them image your hard drive?!? STUPID. STUPID. STUPID.

    If his subpoena was the same as Elliot’s, it did not authorize them to obtain any more information than the relevant messages. Elliot did the right thing by lawyering up immediately, but Steve’s case is yet another sad example of someone just submitting to the bullying tactics.

  11. Let’s not blow this out of proportion. You should feel safer to know that the Transportation Security Administration has field agents whose jurisdiction extends to house calls. After all, transportation takes many forms, and you never know when something might start transporting. You could be in transport right now and not even know it!

  12. I have to wonder whether it’s possible in the US to sue a government agency for gross incompetence? Not one employee, mind the entire organization as a whole.

  13. The TSA is really an “America First!” program, designed to prevent valuable terrorism jobs from being outsourced to foreigners.

  14. As a subsidiary question, since I never grasped this concept of “specialness” in that context: how “special” must one be to become a TSA special agent?

  15. WT…? TSA has jurisdiction? They are actual law enforcement?
    Please, those _____s in the airport can’t be authorized to act outside of that venue.

    1. @Robbo who said: “My hard drive is up my ass – go get it.”

      This is the TSA we’re talking about. They would have promptly snapped on a latex glove and honored your request.

  16. Since when did TSA have the right to execute search warrants again?

    Answer: I’m pretty damn sure they don’t. The ordinary police force is subject to all sorts of weird regulations made by those lovely beings in Congress – since TSA doesn’t have to be bothered by them (I’m sure there’s one saying you can’t be a police officer if your IQ is under 10), they don’t have the right to execute squat.

  17. I cannot read this comment thread because the whole situation is making me furious. Fucking people trying to blow up planes and fucking inept government… I’d prefer to stare at a butterfly licking a fresh pile of mushy, brown shit than try to rationalize my taxes paying for all this. AHHHH!

  18. I follow Frischling’s blog regularly – his is a rational voice generally supportive of the TSA’s mission – and I’m really annoyed at the TSA’s strongarm tactics, and sorry that Frischling “overcooperated” with them. It’s another reminder that TSA still has no real boss thanks to Jim DeMint’s hold. There’s nobody to hold responsible for bonehead behavior and nobody to lead thoughtfully when things get a little crazy. You don’t seize a laptop for a GMail leak – it’s all in the cloud. Boingers should support Steven in any way feasible. If I were home I’d lend him a laptop tonight.

  19. Personally, if a TSA agent showed up at my door and started to throw his weight around, I’d look him straight in the eye and ask if my house looked like an airport terminal. As soon as he said “no”, I’d tell him to get the fuck off my lawn before I had him forcefully removed.

  20. Ok ok, someone needed to actually read the article, so I went ahead and did. Now I can quote it and try and cool you guys down a little:

    “First let me say this, the two agents were polite and professional. I understand they have their job to do. I understand these agents have been given a task to investigate and that what they will do. I would expect nothing less. I have repeatedly written about positive TSA experiences on Flying With Fish. I am not an apologist or looking to gain favour, I simply believe the vast majority of those in the TSA are serious professionals and these two agents acted in a manner that upheld this belief.

    The DHS & TSA are taking this matter seriously, and that tells me that they are paying attention to security in detail. Their issue is not that the Security Directive expires tomorrow, or even that I posted SD-1544-09-06 but that someone within the TSA sent this sensitive document outside of the agency. I understand why the TSA wants to find the person leaking this information and I wish I had a long intertwined story about how I got the document, but I don’t.”

    ~Steven Frischling

    Now, I agree that it’s kinda nonsense that they’d whip out the subpoena so quick, especially in this case.
    But, this does mean that there are leaks and that people are letting out information. No matter how much I love freedom of information, I also have enough common sense to know that it needs to go through dedicated channels. This apparently scared them so much that it must have been something they had hoped to hold close to the chest.

    I agree that the TSA needs help. Hell, they need a major overhaul, but you guys are foaming at the mouth. So much so that this conversation has gone beyond productive.

    I know I’m going to get pounced on for saying this, but someone needed to step in before this mob of commenters goes all Project Mayhem on the TSA headquarters.


    In the role of the Devil’s Advocate for a short time only!

    1. the two agents were polite and professional. I understand they have their job to do. I understand these agents have been given a task to investigate and that what they will do.

      Their manners are irrelevant. They’re chasing down a blogger over the publication of an unclassified memo instead of actually looking for terrorists. Someone whose own father ratted him out as a terrorist didn’t even make the No Fly List and they’re wasting time trying to ferret out someone who disseminated an already widely disseminated public document.

  21. Master Sauce: why do we think the leaker was in the TSA? Unless I’m reading this very wrong, the security directive was sent to airport officials all over the world.

  22. I’d really love it if someone who actually knows could chime in and let us know if the TSA actually has a right to execute subpoenas. Wouldn’t they need to show up with some actual law enforcement? If a TSA agent showed up at my door I honestly wouldn’t know.

    1. There’s plenty of outrage here which I think the TSA generally deserves, and I have negligible respect for the TSA myself, but I think it would do people good to take some deep breaths over this specific case:

      * The TSA agents knew they had no jurisdiction or rights without a subpoena so took the time to follow the law and get one before visiting. That is not “strongarm tactics”, that is respect both for the citizen they are visiting and for the law.

      * The TSA does not appear to be interested in the bloggers in question. Rather, it wants to know which privileged member of its network breached confidence by leaking the document.

      * The content of the document, with its stupid security theater ideas, does not matter much. It’s better for them to track down the security employee with no respect for the confidence placed in them so that they can’t endanger future operations. That person is bad for security, since they were willing (as @eander315 points out) to blow away the TSA’s element of surprise against the rules that bound them.

      * This is hardly “whistleblowing”. Like any of us needed to see the actual document to know the TSA are mainly there to keep GOP rednecks off the administration’s back with pointless theater. The TSA is an expensive government agency has the right and duty to operate securely even if their mission is largely pointless.

      Come on, people, fight the right wars.

  23. They do, in the sense of, there are laws that give the TSA that power. From the subpoena: “This subpoena is issued under the authority contained in 49 U.S.C. §§ 40113 and 46104; and 49 C.F.R § 1503.3.”

    Whether or not that particular law is constitutional is an entirely different matter, and there’s nobody who “actually knows.” Obviously, the opinion of the people who wrote that law is very different from, say, my opinion. And, we hope, the opinions of the people close to Obama, and the opinions of the people on the supreme court.

  24. A look at the samples presented on the transition page are not consistent with my personal life observations of people’s handwriting and gender.

  25. I think we have all missed the key point to this post. Yes, we have TSA agents who appear to have over stepped their grounds. They appear to be pursuing a people of a NON classified government document (which should be 100% legal..) Yeah, sure they were 100% ineffective at stopping someone who was on the watch list from carrying explosives onto a plane after being checked at least three times. Said incompetent agency then implements more stupid to the power of 10.. but you all still missed the really dumb thing (other than said blogger handing over his laptop)…

    The TSA broke his damn keyboard. I mean.. That isn’t an easy task! It takes a real dumbass to remove a low level driver like that. Also they show up to take an image of his drive with what?!??! Nothing.. Oh well we thought you might supply us with a damn image we can carry on our… alright. I am getting wound up here… These short bus special K agents obviously have no business anywhere near a damn computer. They haven’t established ANY enforcement privileges since when they pick on people at our airport they always call over a police officer. I have no doubt that the term “special” is well deserved.

  26. @contrarian,

    Actually the strong arm tactics (if you read the document) were the “I don’t think you understand how much trouble you are in” implied threat. I am sure this wasn’t a single instance but an example of the attitude at large.

    Then they show up with their subpoena without law enforcement which is necessary.. or a court appointed representative to assert delivery.

    Then they show up to back up the drive with their limp noodles in their hands? They leave the computer worse for wear? I am sorry but it is perfectly legal to post documentation that is not classified or restricted. That was what I was told when I got my T.S. clearance from the government, so.. I am going with it doesn’t matter at all how it got from point A to point B since no laws were broken.

    If this is an internal audit about policy then they only had to ask for the email address from an obviously overly co-opertaive yahoo and subpoena Gmail for the owner.

    1. Yeah, they were clearly full of attitude and using their training to get the results they want from a rube. Just looking to get some speaking-after-thinking going here, the DHS does far worse to people than this. When we go into full-indignant-mode over every incident, regardless of scale or merits, we allow the forces of heckdom to discredit us when we are completely right by pointing to our over-reaction when it’s arguable or we’re wrong.

  27. Had I not read the headline and just judged the story by the photo, I would have thought he was being subpoenaed by the fashion police (Fashion Security Administration?)

    In all seriousness, I think these ridiculous security measures do more to promote terrorism than prevent it. Every day, they’re inserting the idea of exploding planes into our collective nightmares, all the while waiting for some lunatic fringe to act on those ideas, thereby justifying there actions and allowing them to ramp up their efforts. It’s like they’re telling desperate weirdos everywhere “think big.”

  28. On that note, Tony P. – How long and hard will the TSA and its ilk have to keep up this behavior before Hanlon’s razor loses its edge?

    I’ve been cutting myself shaving everyday since 9/11.

  29. Frischling said the keyboard on his laptop was no longer working after they tried to copy his files.

    To me, that would be an instant red light. I’d be opening the laptop up and checking that nothing new had been added. Paranoid? Yes, but so are they.

  30. I will trade my dignity to the TSA in the form of a full-body scan at every airport in return for the rollback of every single ineffective piece of security theater they’ve implemented since 9/11. Nothing less.

  31. I was wondering also about the subpoena. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a distinction between a civil subpoena and a criminal one. Local versus federal, yes. I wondered if they just waved a paper in front of the guy — personally I wouldn’t know a real subpoena from a piece of letterhead with signatures on it typed up by the very people standing at my door. And who knows what a TSA badge(?) or ID looks like, anyway?

    Pondering being in this situation – I wouldn’t know a lawyer to call either (except my dad, who is retired). I might actually call the sheriff’s office, because at least they know (of) me there as a responsible CCW holder! Anyone but the feds, actually. I live alone and would not like to be in a situation like that without any witnesses.

  32. I’m in agreement with most of the above comments, but want to add that I’m especially dismayed by this quote from Frischling’s blog:

    “While I sort out what happens next in this situation, and keep my opinions to myself to protect my family from the potential ramifications, I will continue working to keep travellers informed.”

    That visits from the TSA have intimidated a blogger into feeling he can’t publish even his opinions is a very depressing sign of our times.

  33. The USA has always been regarded as one of the true ‘free’ countries in the world. The idea of ‘freedom’ has always played a special part in US politics since WW1. As an outsider (a European!) I look on in horror as the USA looks more and more like a hardline state…not quite as extreme as the soviet union or 1930s Germany…but heading in that direction !!

  34. Hey..does this mean Niantic, CT has surpassed Durango, CO for having the nation’s worse dressed political dissidents? Sweet!

  35. A subpoena is not a search warrant. The subpoena states:

    YOU ARE HEREBY COMMANDED BY THE ADMINISTRATOR, TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, to produce and permit inspection and copying of the records described below to Special Agent Robert Flaherty, TSA Office of Inspection, Transportation Security Admininistration, 580 T G Lee Blvd, Suite 610, Orlando, Florida 32822 (Phone #: 407-563-4096), email: Robert.M.flaherty@dhs.gov, no later than COB December 31, 2009, in furtherance of an official investigation:

    All documents, emails, and/or faxsimile transmissions (sic) in your control possession or control concerning your receipt of TSA Security Directive 1544-09-06 dated December 25, 2009.

    There’s no need to copy a hard drive to get that information.

    Had either blogger anticipated a visit from the TSA and deleted or destroyed “all documents, emails, and/or faxsimily tranmissions” they could state so, turn over nothing and not be in violation of the law. They might also expect a return visit from an official with a search warrant wishing to verify the truth of the destruction assertion.

  36. Re: TSA chasing terrorists: Not their job. their job is to prevent people from damaging planes from within. And they didn’t even have a chance to do that here (dude boarded a plane outside of TSA jurdisdiction). But the evidence is solid that they are in the position of trying to stop something that never happened very much to start with from happening. This is analogous to a special police unit designed to prevent people from driving backwards down busy streets, which has to suck for the TSA.

    I’m just surprised they didn’t use DMCA as their excuse.

  37. A blogger is a journalist and should not be forced to reveal the source of non-classified documents distributed to 10,000 people under any circumstances, by anyone, least of all the TSA.

    Even accepting the situation, a mirror of the hard drive is way excessive. Search warrants are supposed to be specific.

    TSA way overstepped in this situation, just like the CIA is not supposed to be operating within our borders spying on our own citizens and the military is not supposed to be performing civilian law enforcement. Scary stuff. Fat chance getting Congress to do anything about it, maybe Obama will.

  38. “Frischling said they had to go to WalMart to buy a hard drive”

    There is such a breathtaking amount of incompetence here that I’m wondering if it is all a spoof. Because if not, we are all fucked. Until now I was not scared, only irritated by the hassle, but this is so intensely stupid it frightens me that these people have any power at all.

  39. Let’s clear up some of the speculation about how “imaging” a hard drive is done, and how it may have broken the keyboard.

    In order to get a copy of all the data on the system, even files have been deleted but may be at least partially recoverable, you want to copy all the bits on the hard drive. And you don’t want to boot onto that hard drive, because that will change its contents, timestamps, and may trigger programs that will wipe the drive. So you can boot onto another disk, like a USB key, and copy the entire drive onto an external disk (in linux, dd if=/dev/sda of=/mydisk/badguy-sda.dd). But if you’re really paranoid, or you don’t want to mess with figuring out how to boot the citizen’s random hardware via USB, you’d pop out the hard drive and copy it with your own system. This is where a clumsy person would have opportunity to damage the hardware.

    That said, if my laptop went out of my sight in the hands of paranoid whacko law enforcement, I’d be leery of new hardware– things like keyloggers. Probably the TSA doesn’t have the ability to do that, but the FBI and up certainly do. But those guys can just do sneak-and-peek warrants when you’re not home. And they have better things to do.

  40. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=45a5f4828576370976c846b77beba4fc&rgn=div5&view=text&node=49:

    Seems the TSA case is pretty sound, at least against the original leaker, if they are indeed a “covered person”. Section 1520.5 also makes it clear that the security directive is indeed sensitive security information. I don’t think the bloggers are covered persons, and it seems this only applies to such people. So likely, the TSA agents are just collecting evidence, hence a subpoena. But it’s possible some other section might cover the reception and retransmission of SSI.

    You got served!

  41. @tizroc

    I wuld have taken out my HDD and snapped a pic of it. Put the pic on a flash drive and handed it over. “Here ya go, an image of my hard drive. Have a nice day”

    Then I would have closed my door and locked it, shoved a chair under the knob and called my lawyer.


  42. I notice that the TSA’s own blog stopped publishing comments to its entries as of December 28. I wonder if the TSA’s “Blogger Bob” has been detained as well . . . .

  43. Evofuse rocks… letter of the law. Pure concentrated awesome.. add water for awesome juice!

    straponego Laptops have sliding doors that allow you to open directly to the HDD. This makes it EASY to replace the HDD. This isn’t a clumsy person as all my laptops (8) have metal protectors behind them to ensure against stupid. This had to have been head up ass.

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