Terrorists love details. Al-Qaeda’s U.S. embassy bombers knew the thickness of the embassy walls — a key detail in figuring out how much explosives were necessary to take the buildings down. The Mumbai terrorists had copies of the floor plans to the Taj Mahal Hotel before beginning their three-day siege. The 9/11 hijackers took no less than 33 test runs in the months leading up to America’s worst terrorist attack; they cased airports and watched how flight attendants did their jobs. Terrorists do homework. They conduct intense reconnaissance missions so as to maximize the death toll on the day of their actual attacks. Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes.
This week the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — the agency tasked with keeping you and your family safe on airplanes — literally handed al-Qaeda its playbook. In a blunder of astonishingly poor judgment, the TSA allowed one of its most sensitive documents, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) manual, to be posted online. And then, instead of admitting the seriousness of its security breach, the TSA tried to take the position that the information wasn’t that important. Only after Congress got involved did TSA take any action. “Some” TSA employees were placed on administrative leave, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary David Heyman told senators on Wednesday.
One of the more troublesome exposures that must be addressed is the publication of undercover agents’ ID cards — including those for CIA officers and federal air marshals. The TSA claims the information is outdated, yet I confirmed with an air marshal and a CIA officer than their ID cards have not changed in the past 18 months. Sadly, I doubt anyone reading this is surprised. America long ago lost confidence in the TSA. Despite billions of taxpayer dollars, the agency consistently proves incapable of doing its job. And yet one question remains: will it take another terrorist attack using airplanes to reform the TSA?
The largest group of federal law enforcement officers in the country wants action, not backpedaling. John Adler, spokesman for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), told the House Homeland Security Committee, “Both TSA’s posting of sensitive security information and their unwillingness to grasp the seriousness of this are unacceptable.” Adler asked for closed-door congressional investigations, including a “meaningful damage-control assessment.”
Senator Susan Collins, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also saw through the TSA’s attempt to downplay the incident. “On the day before the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s hearing on terrorist travel, it is alarming to learn that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inadvertently posted its own security manual on the Internet,” Collins said.
Here are a few highlights from the TSA’s SOP manual, which unfortunately reads like a how-to-breach-airport-security manual for terrorists:
- Orthopedic shoes, wheelchairs, casts, prosthetics, and footwear of disabled individuals that cannot be removed are exempt from screening, as are bandage dressings.
- Pilots in uniform are exempt from screening. Even if they look drunk, the TSA must not screen them, but instead should contact the FAA.
- Diplomatic pouches are exempt from screening; the SOP describes in detail what one looks like, including exactly where the diplomatic seal should be.
- There’s only a “20%” chance that a bag packed with explosives will be opened for a test.
- People from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, or Algeria will be given extra screening — but not individuals from Pakistan, where the majority of terrorists attacks presently occur.
- Exit lanes are not monitored by TSA-certified officers, but instead are monitored by uncertified civilians who are allowed to sit while on duty.
- Certain procedures for verifying identification documents aren’t used on all travelers during peak travel periods.
In case this doesn’t provide the terrorists with necessary holes to get past airport security, the SOP revealed another troubling detail. Videotaping security checkpoints is not prohibited. If al-Qaeda didn’t already get what it needed, it can send its foot soldiers into airports to photograph airport security procedures for future use.