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

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(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.