TSA suppresses own plane hijacking risk assessment

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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Despite the nude body scanners and invasive pat downs, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) thinks the risk of an airline bombing or hijacking is essentially nil.

But if not for the accidental release of uncensored documents by an appeals court clerk, the agency’s encouraging threat assessment would still be shrouded in secrecy.

Jonathan Corbett filed a court brief in early October as part of his lawsuit against the TSA, blasting the September 2010 policy changes that introduced nude body scanners and passenger friskings at airport security checkpoints. Corbett was allowed to examine certain “sensitive” TSA documents, on the condition that government censors would later remove any restricted information from the public brief.

But a clerk at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals mistakenly placed the full, unredacted brief online, revealing airport threat assessments the TSA seemed intent on covering up.

“As of mid-2011, terrorist threat groups present in the Homeland are not known to be actively plotting against civil aviation targets or airports; instead, their focus is on fundraising, recruiting, and propagandizing,” read one blacked-out portion of the TSA’s administrative record.

The government also redacted Corbett’s claims, backed by evidence from the administrative record, that the TSA “is aware of no one who is currently plotting a terror attack against our aviation system using explosives (non-metallic or otherwise),” and that the agency “admits that there have been no attempted domestic hijackings of any kind in the 12 years since 9/11.”

“It is in the public interest to release these documents,” Corbett writes in another blacked-out paragraph, “because they contain the bombshell revelation that the TSA has literally zero evidence that anyone is plotting to blow up an airplane leaving from a domestic airport.”

Corbett’s lawsuit argues that the TSA’s nude body scanners and pat-down program constitute unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. “The TSA has deliberately misled the public, Congress, and the courts into concluding that no less invasive alternatives can ‘do the job,’” he writes, arguing that bomb-sniffing dogs, explosive-sniffing machines and metal detectors can keep airports safe without trampling on passengers’ rights.

The nude body scanners were finally retired last summer after public and congressional outcry, but a slightly less-invasive scan is still regularly utilized. The TSA’s pat-down program, meanwhile, continues unabated.

The lack of credible threats isn’t the only scandal rocking TSA airport screening procedures. North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson chastised the TSA last May for failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the nude scanner machines. Last month, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general accused the TSA of “[using] resources inefficiently to purchase and deploy underused advanced imaging technology units.”

In July, Hudson introduced the Transportation Security Acquisition Reform Act, a bill designed to cut down on unnecessary security screening at airports. “This bill will help to guarantee increased transparency to TSA’s acquisition process and hold TSA accountable for its spending so that the American people can feel confident about their privacy, safety of travel and the use of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars by TSA,” Hudson told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

When Corbett’s uncensored brief accidentally went public late last week, he assumed its publication by third parties meant he could now comment on its contents. But federal lawyers accused Corbett of violating his gag order, a complaint he finds hard to believe. “If the records have already been disclosed to the public, talking about them further is not ‘disclosure’ in any meaningful sense of the word,” he wrote on his blog Monday.

Corbett filed a motion for clarification to address the issue, but decided not to further discuss the leaked brief until a judge determines that he can do so.

The TSA refused to address why it played up the threat of airliner attacks and tried to censor assessments that showed otherwise. “Given that this currently is a legal matter being remedied via the courts, TSA will respectfully decline to comment,” a spokesman told TheDCNF.

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Brendan Bordelon