The TSA is abusing its power to withhold information from the public in order to avoid criticism, according to Department of Homeland Security inspector general John Roth.
In a year-end review of security issues surrounding the Transportation Security Administration’s computers and equipment at the nation’s airports, Roth complained the TSA wanted information redacted that had already been made public in previous reports.
In a letter to TSA administrator Peter Neffenger, Roth said the TSA’s security review of a draft of the report review resulted in redactions that were “unjustifiable.”
“I can only conclude that TSA is abusing its stewardship of the Sensitive Security Information (SSI) program,” Roth said to Neffenger.
Roth produced a list of items he said had appeared in earlier audits, but were redacted in the summary report.
Among those Roth listed was a TSA request to redact information about a “number of high vulnerabilities, as well as the number of critical high vulnerabilities” involving computer server security at San Francisco International Airport.
TSA, however, allowed that same information to appear in a May 7, 2015 report.
“None of these redactions will make us safer and simply highlight the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of decisions that TSA makes regarding SSI information,” Roth said. “This episode is more evidence that TSA cannot be trusted to administer the program in a reasonable manner.”
Roth added, “Inconsistently and inappropriately marking information in our reports as [sensitive] impedes our ability to issue reports to the public that are transparent without unduly restricting information.”
Although Roth included the redactions in his year-end report in order to meet deadlines, his letter to Neffenger said it “serves as our formal direct appeal to the Administrator of TSA to remove the above-listed redactions.”
Michael England, a national spokesman for the TSA, told AMI that while the agency is “committed to a strong and collaborative working relationship with the DHS Inspector General,” the TSA “stands by its determinations with respect to identifying sensitive information that should not be released to the public.”
England said one of the TSA’s “fundamental principles of information security” is that “some information may be releasable when considered alone but may be harmful when released if aggregated with other similar information.”
England said the TSA “will work directly with the OIG to address specific concerns raised in his letter as well as the appropriate process for raising those concerns.”
An independent government watchdog was less confident of the TSA’s willingness to change its ways.
Cause of Action Institute vice president John Vecchione told AMI that Roth’s letter “demonstrates how agencies abuse redactions and arbitrarily withhold information in order to prevent the public from learning about their actions. “
Vecchione said his organization has found redactions like those used by the TSA to be “ubiquitous,” and are part of a “continued pattern of agencies in the outgoing Administration ignoring the advice of inspectors general and obstructing transparency.”
Roth also said the TSA’s problems with redacting information were “well documented.”
He pointed to a 2014 report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that Roth said implicated the TSA of engaging in a “pattern of improperly designating certain information as [sensitive] in order to avoid its public release because of agency embarrassment and hostility to Congressional oversight.”
That report said career civil servants in the TSA’s Office of Sensitive Security Information make recommendations for what kind of information should be redacted in public reports.
But final authority for determining whether an item is redacted rests with the TSA administrator, a political appointee.
The committee report said the growing use of redactions “has a profound impact on public access.” and called for “strict enforcement of rules governing the use of such designations” in order to “prevent abuse and to maximize public access to government information.”