As previously noted, for all that $8 billion a year we’re spending on the Transportation Security Administration, the only two things we’ve done since 9/11 that have made flying markedly safer from hijacking are securing cockpit doors and instructing passengers to fight back. Everything else is just shoveling tax money out the back door to about three private-sector companies.
Which, naturally, didn’t stop the TSA from coming with a whole new top-secret list of super-duper security procedures, which a couple of travel bloggers, Steven Frischling and Christopher Elliott, immediately published.
Now, I suppose one can argue that the bloggers shouldn’t have done it, and I will.
But the TSA’s first response — subpoenaing the bloggers to try to find their source — suggests that the TSA is far more about protecting somebody’s federally financed joyride than it is about balancing the complex issues involved with protecting air travelers in a free country from hijackers.
And that, my friends, is a part of the larger issue of classified records that has cropped up as the president has pledged to accelerate declassification of a lot of government records that either should have been declassified a long time ago or else never should have been classified in the first place. (Coincidentally, I got into an argument tonight on this very subject on Facebook.)
It is hard for people who don’t work a lot with public records to grasp just how widespread is the practice of withholding records from the public just because making them public would embarrass one or more government officials. (Dick Cheney, I’m talking to your Daily-Show-defense-offering self.) I did this stuff day in and day out for 25 years with records from all levels of government, from the city of Greensboro right on up to the Army, FAA and FBI. It was staggering 1) how many government officials don’t even know the open-records laws that are supposed to guide their work (I should’ve moonlighted as a compliance consultant for the governments I covered; I could’ve gotten rich. Kidding.); 2) how many of those who do know just don’t give a damn; and 3) how many of the illegally withheld records we eventually got, only to find that there clearly was no justification, from a national security standpoint or otherwise, for their having been withheld in the first place.
What’s even more entertaining is that classifying a federal document to try to cover up evidence of a crime is itself a crime. Despite the long litany of crimes committed by the government over the past decade, many involving records that were at one point classified [**COUGH** John Yoo **COUGH**], when’s the last time you heard of anyone being prosecuted for that? Yeah, I thought so.
Because here’s the thing. In a free country, the people, not the government, need to be the ones to decide what stays secret. And in this country’s history, the people have actually done a pretty good job.
Even journalists, whom the Rush Limbaughs of the world like to portray as unpatriotic, don’t want U.S. service members to get hurt unnecessarily. Toward that end, they sit on sensitive information all the time, and not just at the national level or in other countries, either. For example, here in Greensboro during the first Gulf War, the N&R learned that a key component of the Patriot anti-missile system was being manufactured by a local company but did not publish that information until being assured that publication would not jeopardize anyone.
I hope the ACLU takes the bloggers’ case, countersues the crap out of the TSA for abuse of process and wins a ton of money, because, dammit, somebody, somewhere has to stand up for common sense and I’m not going to be the one stupid enough to argue that a pair of bloggers have more of an obligation in this regard than does the federal government.
UPDATE: The TSA subpoenas have been dropped, although a number of other troubling questions about the agency’s behavior toward the two bloggers remain. Quasi-relatedly, Republican congresscritters need to remember that the biggest threat to national security isn’t journalists. Sometimes it’s … Republican congresscritters. Republican congresscritters who are the senior Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, in fact.