- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2015

The TSA has a number of security problems at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, but it declared many of the details classified to try to hide the embarrassing information from the public, the agency’s internal auditor charged in a report released Friday.

Inspector General John Roth said the Transportation Security Agency was abusing its powers in order to shield the information — though he said the agency had released the exact same kinds of details in previous reports, so there’s no valid reason not to release them now. He said the only conclusion is that the agency is hiding behind classification.

“Over-classification is the enemy of good government. SSI markings should be used only to protect transportation security, rather than, as I fear occurred here, to allow government program officials to conceal negative information within a report,” Mr. Roth said, referring to sensitive security information, or “SSI.”

Adding to the problems, TSA Administrator John Pistole refused to reply to Mr. Roth’s appeals, ignoring them for months and delaying the release of the report. Finally Mr. Roth went ahead with the release after one of Mr. Pistole’s subordinates wrote back insisting the classification be maintained. Mr. Pistole resigned from his job at the end of last year.

The report says TSA has failed to follow security protocols in a number of areas at JFK, which is one of the country’s busiest airports. But the total number of vulnerabilities and the seriousness of them were blacked out in Mr. Roth’s public report. TSA also made Mr. Roth delete details about TSA communications cabinets, which were not as secure as they should have been.

The full report, without redactions, was shared with congressional committees that oversee the TSA.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said Mr. Pistole’s successor should personally review the redactions and find a way to release the full report.

“Proper transparency is key to good governance and by insisting this report be partially redacted, TSA undercuts this transparency,” Mr. Thompson said. “Unfortunately, government agencies have all too often over-classified material under the pretext of security in order to sweep negative or embarrassing information under the rug.”

The TSA referred questions to the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the agency, and which said it takes airport safety seriously, and has already begun to fix some of the problems the inspector general found.

But the department said it’s up to TSA’s security experts to decide what information the public should be allowed to see.

The flap is over data deemed to be sensitive security information, or SSI — a special category created specifically to shield some transportation information from the public for fear it could expose vulnerabilities.

While not as controlled as classified data, SSI data is required to be protected and release can result in civil penalties.

Watchdogs, however, have accused the TSA of using SSI designations to shield information that could be released, and often has been released in the past.

In last week’s report Mr. Roth said employees regularly left secure doors propped open, didn’t keep visitor logs of who entered sensitive communications rooms, allowed some supposedly secure data cabinets to be used for storing cleaning supplies as well.

Investigators said of 21 TSA rooms they looked at, 14 didn’t have smoke detectors, another 14 didn’t have fire extinguishers and eight lacked automatic sprinklers.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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