Classification Fever

The passengers on United Flight 93 knew the real intent of the hijackers on their flight. With that information, they were able to take action and in all likelihood, prevented the destruction of the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security seems to be wrapped up in the over-classification of documents that if released to the proper entities, could help in the protection of the United States.

The U.S. House is just passed the Reducing Over-Classification Act of 2009 (H.R. 553) which is intended to reduce the over-classification of homeland security information and other sensitive materials.  One of the provisions of the bill would allow more law enforcement agencies to see unclassified versions of intelligence that DHS currently holds tightly to their chest.

Being a former U.S. Coast Officer who worked for two years in the field of intelligence, specifically narcotics intelligence, I understand the need for controlling the dissemination and distribution of classified information. However, I’ve seen it go to extreme levels in both the counter-narcotics world, and in counter terrorism. Since the Sensitive Security Information (SSI) regulations were created, the prime directive seemed to be: when in doubt, slap SSI on it and restrict it, without much regard for who could actually use the information and whether it was actually SSI or not. I’ve seen TSA presentations with SSI on the materials, even though the information was obtained through open source information. The guiding principle should be to decide if something truly needs to be classified and restricted, instead of putting SSI on it as a means to cover oneself from liability. Perhaps this legislation will help.

This discussion actually leads to the greater discussion and that is the use of Security Directives as policy inititatives. SD’s are supposed to be used to make immediate changes to airport and aircraft operator security in order to respond to an imminent or pending threat – like the liquid bomb plot in August of 2006. However, ever since 9/11, SD’s have been used to create policies and “pseudo-regulations” without undergoing the appropriate amendment process called for under Title 49 CFR Part 1542, or the Notice of Proposed Rule Making process. The absurdity extended last December when a member of TSA made a comment at the annual security summit that they had been working on a revision to one particular directive for eight months. Eight months to respond to a real time threat? Of course not, but there are few people in the industry that believe SD’s are actually used just for responding to threats. Most everyone understands that they are TSA’s tool for making policy changes that do not have the chance to undergo scrutiny of the entities it will affect.

Obviously, I cannot disseminate the contents of any SD here in this public forum, but suffice to say that many of the directives that have come forth are administrative in nature and should be subject to administrative reviews through the amendment process, as called for in the regulation. The problem with using SD’s for administrative changes not directly related to an actual threat also calls into question the ability to train airport and air carrier personnel on the security processes. Since the basic Airport Security Coordinator training curriclum is outlined in Title 49 CFR Part 1542 much of the information is publicly accessible. Again, I’m not promoting the concept that we tell people things they should not hear, but we also need to tell the right people the things they do need to hear to do their jobs. Then, like on United 93, we can respond to the information in an appropriate manner.

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3 Responses to Classification Fever

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