At 7:00 p.m. on December 29, armed TSA agents banged on the door of photojournalist and KLM Airlines blogger Steven Frischling’s Connecticut home. “They threatened me with a criminal search warrant and suggested they’d call up my clients and say I was a security risk if I didn’t turn over my computer to them. They said ‘we could make this difficult for you,’” Frischling told me in a telephone interview the following afternoon. By then, TSA had removed Frischling’s computer from his home, made a copy of his hard drive, and returned the computer to him.
The federal agents, dispatched form the Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Inspection, had wanted Frischling, a respected travel journalist, to name names. They wanted Frischling to tell them who had given him “TSA Security Directive SD-1544-09-06,” which Frischling and another blogger had posted online three days earlier.
“It was a double-edged sword for me because I did not know who sent me the document. And it was absurd because that document had been seen by approximately 10,000 airline personnel around the world, including personnel in Islamabad, Riyadh, and Nigeria, so the idea that it was somehow in their control” was false, Frischling said.
Frischling explained that he posted the document because he wanted people to be able to read it and form their own opinions and ideas about it. The document was not marked “classified,” and it had already apparently been posted on some airline websites. The email had been sent to him anonymously from someone with a gmail address. TSA believed it was one of their own and wanted to know who, exactly.
For Frischling, thinking beyond the immediate safety of his three children — alone with him in the house — was difficult. His wife works at night and was already gone.
“I stood talking to the agents with my three-year-old in my arms,” Frischling told me.
While the agents were intimidating him, he feared if he were to be arrested then his children would be left without a parent present. He telephoned an attorney, who suggested he cooperate with TSA since there was no federal shield law to protect him in matters deemed national security threats. Besides, the agents “made it clear that if I said ‘no’ to letting them have my hard drive, they were going to come back with a search warrant,” Frischling explained.
But why come at Frischling with such heavy-handed tactics? In a statement, TSA later said that security directives “are not for public disclosure” — which hardly sounds like it’s against federal law per se. (If it were, it’s almost certain the TSA would have said so in its statement.) But that didn’t help Frischling in the heat of the moment.
So, why then?
In covering the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 for Pajamas Media, and also for a column I write at LATimes.com, I have spoken with five different FBI and TSA agents — none of whom are presently authorized to make statements about Northwest Flight 253 on the record. That job has been relegated to the Department of Justice, whose spokesman, Dean Boyd, had only this to say to me:
Because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we are not at liberty to provide you with any comment beyond the public allegations that are contained in the criminal complaint.
But I did find my answer — in a pre-recorded message at the FBI’s Detroit Metro Bureau to which press are referred. The message there states that anyone seeking information about “the Christmas Day event at Detroit metro airport” should call the Department of Justice in Washington.
Wait. A Christmas Day “event”?
The FBI makes the attack against Northwest Flight 253 sound more like a shopping sale or a rock concert than the terror strike that it was. Trying to kill 298 airline passengers, destroy an airplane, and crash it into the suburbs of Detroit is now called an “event”? Could the jackbooted TSA visit to blogger Steven Frischling’s Connecticut home be just another trickle-down result of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s insistence that terrorist attacks be referred to as “man-caused disasters”?
You see, in the TSA directive which Frischling’s posted online, the TSA was caught calling a spade a spade:
INFORMATION: On December 25, 2009, a terrorist attack was attempted against a flight traveling to the United States.
Yup, “terrorist attack.” In plain old English, spelled out. When out of public earshot, apparently the TSA is allowed to call a terrorist attack a terrorist attack by name. But when the public is listening, it’s to be referred to as a Christmas Day event.
“We are a free society, knowledge is power, and informing the masses allows for public conversation and collective understanding,” Frischling wrote on his blog. “You can agree or disagree, but you need information to know if you want to agree or disagree. My goal is to inform and help people better understand what is happening, as well as allow them to form their own opinions.”
Prescient words. Another goal for journalists is to inform the people that a terrorist attack is not a “Christmas Day event.”