Sensitive Security Information and Transportation Security: Issues and Congressional Options
CRS Report for Congress
Sensitive Security Information
and Transportation Security:
Issues and Congressional Options
June 9, 2004
Mitchel A. Sollenberger
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Sensitive Security Information
and Transportation Security:
Issues and Congressional Options
As a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed
legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency
was charged with making improvements to the country’s transportation security
systems and protecting against future terrorist attacks. TSA was also given the
authority to establish regulations for protecting certain information from public
disclosure. These regulations govern sensitive security information, or SSI.
The SSI regulations prohibit TSA officials and employees having a “need to
know” status from disclosing transportation security information that details security
programs and equipment; training and security procedures; vulnerability assessments;
or other related information. The regulations pertaining to SSI are exempt from
Freedom of Information Act disclosure. TSA is required, however, to provide SSI
to authorized congressional committees.
The purpose of the SSI regulations is to restrict information relative to future
terrorist attacks. TSA’s application of the SSI regulations has, however, resulted in
some controversies over airport security procedures, employee accountability,
passenger screening, and airport secrecy agreements. Some experts believe that too
much information has been kept from the public in these circumstances. TSA states,
however, that protecting SSI is warranted because of the need to protect
A fundamental issue in this controversy is the tension between securing the
nation’s transportation systems and keeping the public informed. Democratic
governments benefit from an informed citizenry; however, broad openness may
provide potential enemies with information that enables attacks on the transportation
infrastructure. What level of risk resulting from public access to SSI is acceptable
to policymakers and the public? What alternatives are available to the present
system, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
This report provides background information on and analysis of issues
concerning the SSI regulations. Additionally, it identifies the transportation security
and information issues at the heart of this debate. Finally, the report outlines and
assesses policy options for Congress, including endorsing current regulations, giving
greater specificity to TSA’s protection requirements, setting time limits for
protection, creating an advisory commission, requiring periodic congressional
briefings, or establishing an oversight board. This report will be updated as events
In troduction ......................................................1
SSI and the Development of SSI Regulations............................2
SSI and Transportation Security Regulations........................4
SSI and Classified National Security Information.........................6
Safeguarding Transportation Infrastructure vs. Public Access to Information...7
Transportation Security Issues....................................8
Public Information Issues........................................9
SSI Policy Options................................................10
Option 1: Maintain the Status Quo...............................10
Option 2: Create Specific Protection Standards......................11
Option 3: Establish Time Limits for Protection......................12
Option 4: Create an Advisory Commission.........................12
Option 5: Require Periodic Congressional Briefings..................13
Option 6: Establish a Select Oversight Entity.......................14
Sensitive Security Information
and Transportation Security:
Issues and Congressional Options
Democratic governments face a difficult tension in weighing their duty to
protect information vital to security concerns while keeping the public informed. The
9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gave greater
emphasis to this issue in the context of an immediate need for the federal government
to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks.
Given that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were accomplished using commercial
airliners as weapons, Congress sought to strengthen transportation security by
establishing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).1 Congress directed
the new agency to assess and protect against threats to the nation’s air, land, and
maritime transportation systems. In the act creating the new agency, Congress
incorporated the concept of sensitive security information (SSI) and directed the
agency to establish regulations to protect such information from public disclosure
when disclosure would detract from the security of the nation’s transportation system
and the safety of travelers and crews. Accordingly, TSA is faced with finding an
appropriate balance between its mandate to protect SSI from disclosure and the need
to keep the public adequately informed about transportation security.
The application of SSI regulations issued by the TSA, however, has generated
controversy. Some critics charge that the agency has withheld too much information
from the public. Pilots, fight attendants, and consumer advocates assert that TSA “is
muzzling debate of security initiatives by labeling too many of the agency’s policies
and reports as too sensitive for public dissemination.”2 For some, the issue is simply
a conflict between two arguably legitimate needs — the need for security versus the
public’s need for open access to information so they can make rational travel and
transportation decisions for themselves. Jane E. Kirtley, director of the Silha Center
for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass
Communication at the University of Minnesota encapsulated the problem when she
1 S. 1447, 107th Cong., approved as P.L. 107-71 on November 19, 2001. See also “Remarks
on Signing the Aviation and Transportation Security Act,” Weekly Compilation of
Presidential Documents, vo1. 37, Nov. 19, 2001, pp. 1687-88.
2 Sara Kehaulani Goo, “TSA Faulted for Restricting Information,” Washington Post, Oct.
said that the issue comes down to whether “our openness was what made us so
With a view to informing congressional debate on whether the TSA has
achieved an appropriate balance between security needs and the information needs
of the traveling public, this report traces the origin of the SSI concept and its
incorporation into TSA transportation security regulations; it explains how the
treatment of sensitive security information differs from the treatment of national
security information; it discusses the tensions inherent between the need to protect
sensitive information and the need to advise the traveling public adequately on
transportation security matters; and it presents and analyzes pertinent legislative
policy options that may be of interest to Congress.
SSI and the Development of SSI Regulations
Sensitive security information is information that describes air carrier screening
procedures, airport or air carrier security programs, maritime transportation security
procedures, or other related transportation security matters. The SSI concept appears
in federal statutes that prohibit the disclosure of information obtained or developed
in carrying out security activities if the TSA Administrator (formerly the Under
Secretary of Transportation for Security) determines that such disclosure would “be
detrimental to the safety of passengers in transportation.”4 TSA regulations specify5
the categories of information that may be protected as SSI. When the TSA
designates information as SSI, its disclosure is limited by a strict need-to-know basis
as determined by TSA; disclosure restrictions remain in force until revoked by TSA.
On November 16, 2001, 63 days after the attacks of September 11, Congress
passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which the President
signed into law on November 19.6 Under ATSA, Congress created the
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — then an agency of the Department
of Transportation, but now located within the Department of Homeland Security —
and authorized the agency to make improvements in the country’s transportation
securi t y. 7
3 Quoted in Bryon Okada, “Public Will Not Be Told Details of D/FW Breach,” Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, Jan. 24, 2003, p. 1.
4 49 U.S.C.§ 114(s)(1) and 49 U.S.C. § 40119(b)(1).
5 49 C.F.R. § 1520.7.
6 S. 1447, 107th Cong., P.L. 107-71. See also “Remarks on Signing the Aviation and
Transportation Security Act,” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, vo1. 37, Nov.
7 The act assigns TSA responsibility for inspecting persons and property carried by U.S.
aircraft operators and foreign air carriers operating in the U.S. These responsibilities cover
ATSA is codified in Title 49 of the United States Code, which includes two
statutory provisions authorizing the SSI regulations. The provisions authorized the
Under Secretary of Transportation for Security and the Administrator of the Federal
Aviation Administration to establish regulations prohibiting the disclosure of certain
transportation security information. The pertinent provisions are as follows:
§ 114(s) Nondisclosure of security activities. —
(1) In general. — Notwithstanding section 552 of title 5, the Under Secretary
shall prescribe regulations prohibiting the disclosure of information obtained or
developed in carrying out security under authority of the Aviation and
Transportation Security Act (Public Law 107-71) or under chapter 449 of this
title [49 USCS §§ 44901 et seq.] if the Under Secretary decides that disclosing
the information would —
(A) be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
(B) reveal a trade secret or privileged or confidential commercial or
financial information; or
(C) be detrimental to the security of transportation.
(2) Availability of information to Congress. — Paragraph (1) does not
authorize information to be withheld from a committee of Congress authorized
to have the information.
(3) Limitation on transferability of duties. — Except as otherwise provided
by law, the Under Secretary may not transfer a duty or power under this
subsection to another department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States.
§ 40119. Security and research and development activities8
(a) Disclosure. — The Under Secretary of Transportation for Security and the
Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration each shall conduct
research (including behavioral research) and development activities appropriate
to develop, modify, test, and evaluate a system, procedure, facility, or device to
protect passengers and property against acts of criminal violence, aircraft piracy,
and terrorism and to ensure security.
(b) Disclosure. — (1) Notwithstanding section 552 of title 5 and the
establishment of a Department of Homeland Security, the Secretary of
Transportation shall prescribe regulations prohibiting disclosure of information
obtained or developed in ensuring security under this title if the Secretary of
Transportation decides disclosing the information would —
(A) be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
(B) reveal a trade secret or privileged or confidential commercial or
financial information; or
the requirements of 49 U.S.C. § 44901 et seq. and 49 U.S.C. § 44903 et seq., which pertain
to civil aviation security.
8 Section 40119 was originally enacted in 1974 with the Air Transportation Security Act
(88 Stat. 417) and modified in 1990 (104 Stat. 1388-370).
(C) be detrimental to the security of transportation
(2) Paragraph (1) does not authorize information to be withheld from a
committee of Congress authorized to have the information.
(c) Transfers of duties and powers prohibited. — Except as otherwise
provided by law, the Under Secretary may not transfer a duty or power under this
section to another department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States
Sometime after the Homeland Security Act of 2002 became law, the Transportation
Security Administration, with its associated authorities and responsibilities, was
transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland
SSI and Transportation Security Regulations
Before the TSA migrated from the Transportation Department to the Homeland
Security Department, however, the Under Secretary for Transportation Security
(using his authority under ATSA to “issue, rescind, and revise such regulations as are9
necessary to carry out the functions of [TSA]”) transferred authority for existing
Federal Aviation Administration regulations10 to the Transportation Security1112
Administration on February 22, 2002. TSA incorporated these regulations into
its Transportation Security Regulations (TSRs).13
The TSRs contain rules on administration, procedure, and security for air, land,
and maritime transportation. Subchapter A, titled “Administrative and Procedural
Rules,” contains Part 1520, which addresses Sensitive Security Information (SSI).
The Federal Register describes or defines SSI as including “information about
security programs, vulnerability assessments, technical specifications of certain
screening equipment and objects used to test screening equipment, and other
information.”14 This definition is spelled out in more detail in 49 C.F.R. § 1520.7,
which is summarized below.
!Section 1520.7(a) protects any security program “that relates to
United States mail to be transported by air.”
9 P.L. 107-71, 115 Stat. 597 (2001).
10 14 C.F.R., Parts 91, 107, 108, 109, 121, 129, 135, 139, and 191.
11 49 C.F.R., Parts 1500, 1520, 1540, 1542, 1544, 1546, 1548, and 1550.
12 The final rule was published as U.S. Department of Transportation, “Civil Aviation
Security Rules,” Federal Register, vol. 67, Feb. 22, 2002, pp. 8340-84.
13 The United States Coast Guard has promulgated TSA’s SSI regulations. In 33 C.F.R. §
101.405, the Coast Guard has established Maritime Security (MARSEC) Directives that set
“mandatory measures” to respond to maritime security threats. The MARSEC Directives
are considered SSI in accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 1520.
14 U.S. Department of Transportation, “Civil Aviation Security Rules,” p. 8342.
!Section 1520.7(b) through (d) covers security directives and
information circulars, selection criteria used in the security screening
process, and security contingency plans and/or instructions
pertaining to those plans.
!Section 1520.7(e) through (g) relates to any technical specification
of any device or equipment used for security communications,
screening, or “detecting deadly or dangerous weapons,” including an
“explosive, incendiary, or destructive substance.”
!Section 1520.7(h) covers the release of information that TSA “has
determined may reveal a systemic vulnerability of the aviation
system, or a vulnerability of aviation facilities, to attack.”
!Section 1520.7(i) protects “information [released by TSA]
concerning threats against transportation.”
!Section 1520.7(j) protects “details of aviation security measures.”
!Section 1520.7(k) and (l) relates to any “information” TSA has
prohibited from disclosure under the criteria of 49 U.S.C. 40119, or
any draft, proposed, or recommended change to the information or
records identified in this section.
!Section 1520.7(m) through (p) covers locations, tests, and scores of
tests on all screening methods or equipment.
!Section 1520.7(q) protects “images and descriptions of threat images
for threat projection systems.”
!Section 1520.7(r) relates to all Department of Transportation
information on “vulnerability assessment ... irrespective of mode of
Section 1520.5 specifies that all airport operators, aircraft operators, foreign air
carriers, indirect air carriers, applicants, and other persons who receive SSI must
protect it from disclosure. Additionally, TSA may disclose SSI to persons with a15
“need to know” in order to carry out transportation security duties. SSI may be
exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.16 The authorizing
statute, however, requires TSA to provide SSI information to congressional
committees “authorized to have the information.”17
TSRs also include rules for notifying the public, airport operators, and others
with transportation system responsibilities when transportation security concerns
arise. Section 1542.305 permits TSA to order airport operators to “display and
maintain in public areas information concerning foreign airports that ... do not
15 49 C.F.R. § 1520.5(b).
16 49 U.S.C. § 40019(b). See Public Citizen v. FAA, 988 F. 2d 186, 194-196 (D.C. Cir.
the alleged violator may be provided copies of the enforcement investigative report which
may contain SSI. See 49 C.F.R. § 1520.3(d).
17 49 U.S.C. § 114(2).
maintain and administer effective security measures.” These displays do not include
Sections 1542.303 and 1544.305 authorize TSA to issue Information Circulars
and Security Directives, which may include SSI. These circulars and directives are
used to notify airport operators of threats to the aviation transportation system. If
additional security measures are required, TSA will issue a Security Directive that
sets “mandatory measures” that must be carried out.18 Airport operators and others
who receive Information Circulars or Security Directives must restrict their
availability “to those persons with an operational need-to-know.”19
SSI and Classified National Security Information
The distinctions between Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and classified
National Security Information (NSI) are important, on the one hand, with regard to
their definitions and contexts, and, on the other hand, with regard to how each is
handled. Understanding the following distinctions may help clarify some of the
issues and controversies that have arisen in the arena of transportation security.
!SSI arises only in the context of transportation security; NSI, in the
context of national security and defense, intelligence, and foreign
!The handling of SSI is governed by regulations issued by the
Transportation Security Administration; NIS, by Executive Order
!SSI is “born” protected: SSI regulations prohibit TSA from making
available to the public any transportation information “obtained or
developed during security activities or research and development
activities.”20 Protecting such information requires no action from
TSA officials. Classifying NSI, however, requires government
officials to determine, pursuant to E.O. 12958, that the document
contains national security, intelligence, or foreign relations
information qualifying to be withheld from the public.
!SSI regulations do not set forth specific justifications for protecting
transportation security information. E.O. 12958, however, sets forth
seven criteria that justify classifying national security information21
and restricting its availability.
18 49 C.F.R. § 1542.303(a) & 49 C.F.R. § 1544.305(a).
19 49 C.F.R. § 1542.303(f)(1) & 49 C.F.R. § 1544.305(f)(1).
20 49 C.F.R. § 1520.1(a).
21 Section 1.5(a) military plans, weapons systems, or operations; 1.5(b) foreign government
information; 1.5(c) intelligence activities (including special activities), sources or methods,
!SSI regulations do not distinguish among classes of information.
Currently, all transportation security information is considered SSI
and its public disclosure is prohibited. Classified national security
information, however, is protected at one of three levels — top
secret, secret, or confidential — and access to the information
depends on the level of classification and the user’s level of22
!SSI regulations do not set time limits for declassification and
release. The only provision for the release of SSI is for alleged
perpetrators of crimes or their representatives to receive SSI “for the
sole purpose of providing the information necessary to prepare a23
response to the allegations.” E.O. 12958, as amended, calls for the
establishment of a specific date for declassification of protected
national security information. If no date is set on the document, then
a 10-year limit is established.24
The standards set for the classification and declassification of national security
information are arguably higher and more specific than the standards for sensitive
security information. The lack of specificity of SSI regulations has raised questions
about the withholding and eventual disclosure of transportation security information.
Accordingly, we now turn to the tensions that can occur when the government
withholds sensitive security information, keeping in mind how the handling of
national security information differs from that of sensitive transportation security
Safeguarding Transportation Infrastructure
vs. Public Access to Information
Democratic governments continually face the difficult problem of weighing
their duty to protect information vital to security concerns against their responsibility
for keeping the public informed. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, gave
greater urgency to this debate in the United States, and the implementation of the
ATSA mandate has given it focus. The challenge lies in trying to balance these two
or cryptology; 1.5(d) foreign relations or foreign activities of the U.S., including confidential
sources; 1.5(e) scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security;
vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, projects or plans relating to U.S.
national security. See E.O. 12958, Federal Register, vol. 60, Apr. 20, 1995, p. 19825.
22 See E.O. 12958, Federal Register, vol. 60, Apr. 20, 1995, p. 19825.
23 49 C.F.R. § 1520.3(d).
24 For more information on declassification arrangements, see CRS Report 97-771 GOV,
Security Classification Policy and Procedure: E.O. 12958, as Amended, by Harold C.
goals. As former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Larry C. Johnson stated,
“We live in a free and open society. If someone really wants to get information, they
can get it. But there’s some information we need to withhold.”25 In this
environment, TSA has had to weigh its duty to protect sensitive information while
still keeping the public informed.
Over the last two years, TSA has applied the SSI provisions of the
Transportation Security Regulations to reduce the risk of vital security information
from reaching the wrong hands. In one incident, TSA withheld information about an
airport event involving an individual who passed through a security checkpoint
without being stopped. The agency stated it was “not going to be issuing any kind
of report because anything beyond the most general of comments would lead us into
areas which concern sensitive security information.”26 In another incident, TSA and
the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami dropped a criminal case against a former federal
baggage screener charged with stealing from passengers’ luggage.27 The U.S.
attorney’s office withdrew the charges because a federal judge determined that the
defense could cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, which could raise the
possibility of disclosing SSI about TSA security and training procedures.28
The tension between protecting transportation security information while
keeping the public informed is a continual one. Like other federal agencies, TSA is
not alone in trying to deal with this issue. The next two sections analyze in greater
detail transportation security and public information issues.
Transportation Security Issues
The primary justification for withholding information from the public has been
the concern for travelers’ safety. It is maintained that the release of SSI could
jeopardize the nation’s transportation system. The U.S. government has frequently
stated that the protection of SSI “is critical to the United States’ efforts to protect the
general public from terrorists attacks like those committed on September 11, 2001.”29
The protection of SSI is arguably more important for TSA because of the
planning and precision of the 9/11 attacks. As former National Security Adviser
Richard V. Allen noted: “If you simply stripped this incredible act of aggression of
everything else and just looked at it from the technical point of view, it was a brilliant
25 Alexis Simendinger, “Educating the Enemy?” National Journal, vol. 33, Nov. 17, 2001,
26 Terri Langford, “Report on Incident at D/FW is Sealed; Agency Cites Security in
Withholding Details on Breach, Evacuation,” Dallas Morning News, Jan. 24, 2003, p. 30A.
27 USA v. Washington, et al., PACER Service Center, 03-CR-20648-ALL, Nov. 13, 2003.
28 For more information on these and other controversies surrounding the SSI regulations
see CRS Report RS21727, Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and Transportation Security:
Background and Controversies, by Mitchel A. Sollenberger.
29 Dr. Kamyar Kalantar et al., v. Lufthansa German Airlines, et al., 276 F. Supp. 2d 5, 8,
maneuver. It was absolutely brilliant. It exploited every weakness we had.”30 TSA
officials state that the release of security and training procedures could aid in the
planning of a similar attack, and that the divulgence of any information about TSA’s
security systems could endanger the entire transportation infrastructure.
The public availability of security information also could increase the
plausibility of threats to paralyze transportation systems. The disruption could
obstruct TSA’s efforts to prevent real threats. Additionally, the related increased
costs to TSA, private companies, and the public could be great.31 Airports have
already experienced increased costs “through a combination of factors including new
capital projects, unfunded security mandates and environmental demands.”32
Public Information Issues
As the preceding sections suggest, in a post 9/11 environment, it is arguably
appropriate and necessary for the federal government to reevaluate the balance
between making information public and the need to protect the nation from terrorist
threats. SSI regulations are an attempt to prevent transportation security information
from reaching the wrong hands and being used to plan another 9/11 attack.
Some say, however, that the public disclosure of information is not a threat to
security, but “the key to it.”33 The disclosure of information has long been held as
one of the primary ways to combat fraud and abuse in government. As Supreme
Court Justice Louis Brandeis once stated, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy
for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants;
electric light the most efficient policeman.”34
By this logic, it is possible that SSI protection could reduce public pressure for
improving security systems. For example, it has been asserted that baggage screening
machines used to detect bombs and other security threats are experiencing a number
of “false” hits where something other than a bomb or other security risk causes the
machine to make a misidentification.35 TSA spokeswomen Amy von Walter has
30 Simendinger, “Educating the Enemy?” p. 3582.
31 See CRS Report RS21047, Unemployment Related to Terrorist Attacks: Proposals to
Assist Affected Workers in the Airlines and Related Industries, by Paul J. Graney, p. 1.
32 See Airports Staff, “Airports, Airlines Battle Over Solutions,” Aviation Week, available
33 John Podesta, “Bush’s Secret Government,” The American Prospect, vol. 14, Sept. 1,
visited June 9, 2004.
34 Louis Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use it (New York: F.A.
Stokes, 1914; reprint, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 89 (page citation is to the
35 The General Accounting Office reports high “false alarm rates” for the baggage machines.
See U.S. General Accounting Office, Challenges Exist in Stabilizing and Enhancing
Passenger and Baggage Screening Operations, GAO Report GAO-04-440T (Washington:
stated that the problem happens “just about everywhere.” The difficulty for the
public, however, is that the agency has revealed little information about the problem
and measures to correct the problem. TSA relies on transportation security concerns
in defense of nondisclosure: “We have to be careful what we say about this because
we don’t want to give a road map to the bad guys.”36
Others consider the release of transportation security information an incentive
for change. Some say the restriction of information deprives travelers of information
that they could use to assess travel risks.37 Further, these policies might lead to
public complacency. As former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta notes,
“openness does not destroy security; it is often the key to it. The American people
cannot remain vigilant if they remain ignorant.”38
SSI Policy Options
This section identifies some congressional options with a view to balancing the
two values of transportation security and public disclosure. These options include
accepting the existing SSI regulations, giving greater specificity to the agency’s
protection requirements, setting time conditions for ending protection, seeking expert
advice, requiring periodic congressional briefings, and establishing an oversight
Option 1: Maintain the Status Quo
Congress could leave standing the current authorizing statutes and regulations
for SSI. Under this option, TSA appears to have full authority to prohibit the
disclosure of SSI to the public. This TSA authority is similar to that of the FAA
upheld in the1993 case, Public Citizen v. FAA, where an aviation consumer group
challenged the FAA’s authority to promulgate and withhold from the public its rules
on certain sensitive security regulations and programs. In the case, the Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia held that the FAA had the authority to withhold
such regulations and programs from the public.39 The court found “that greater
Feb. 12, 2004), pp. 19, 33-34.
36 Bob von Sternberg, “Sometimes, Your Luggage Lies,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March
37 The airline passenger group International Airline Passengers Association has advocated
“the need for disclosure of threat information to allow passengers to make their own
informed decisions about whether and when to fly.” Garrett Hodes, “Terrorist Threats: The
Friendly Skies Aren’t Too Friendly About Notification,” University of Kansas Law Review,
vol. 46, Jan. 1998, p. 372.
38 Podesta, “Bush’s Secret Government.”
39 988 F.2d 186, 195-96 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
disclosure would jeopardize passenger safety is more than just a finding of fact —
it is a prediction of the likely future effect of disclosure.”40
The present arrangements have so far raised only minor public complaints.41
For example, in Des Moines, Iowa, local law enforcement officers and airport
officials voiced concerns over airport security agreements, which prohibit local
police from commenting on any incident involving SSI that has occurred on airport
property without authorization by TSA.42 After some clarification of the agreement
by TSA officials and the creation of a training seminar for Des Moines police, the
issue was resolved.43
Although the continuation of the current SSI regulations appears to provide
adequate protection of vital transportation information, some believe that the
increased availability of some transportation security information can be an incentive
for constructive change. The belief is that, by making more of some transportation
information available, the public can make a stronger or better informed case to the
industry and government to improve security weaknesses in the transportation
system. In addition, many of the controversies over SSI are largely unknown to the
public, and thus, do not constitute a pressing concern. Moreover, the public’s lack
of information limits public participation in policymaking for, and support of,
improved transportation systems security.
Option 2: Create Specific Protection Standards
Congress could require greater specificity for SSI regulations. For example, the
vague and highly discretionary “need to know” principle provides no set standard for
determining who may receive SSI. A possible solution would be to have TSA create
categories of persons who could receive certain SSI information, such as TSA
officials, security personnel, private companies, and the public. For example,
specific information about a breach in security at an airport check point might be
available only to TSA officials and security personnel. Private companies and the
public would be provided only generalized reports about the incident.
This approach could provide better control over the details of information
publicly released, and minimize its value to potential terrorists. In addition,
interested parties would know beforehand the kind of information they would be
provided, and what to expect from TSA officials if similar incidents occur. This
refinement could also ease public apprehension about security incidents while
providing more detailed sensitive information for security personnel.
40 Ibid., at 196.
41 For information about several of the controversies surrounding SSI, see CRS Report
RS21727, Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and Transportation Security: Background
and Controversies, by Mitchel A. Sollenberger.
42 Tom Alex, “Secrecy in Airport Security Contract Criticized,” Des Moines Register, Sept.
43 See CRS Report RS21727, Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and Transportation
Security: Background and Controversies, by Mitchel A. Sollenberger, pp. 5-6.
There is at least one limit to this option: some types of information may need
to be protected at all times. For example, releasing incident reports to the public may
have unintended consequences, such as revealing vital security procedures to
Option 3: Establish Time Limits for Protection
Congress could have TSA place time limits on the protection of SSI. As noted
earlier in this report, classified national security information has specific dates for its
declassification. If no date is set on the classified document, then a 10-year limit is
established.44 A similar requirement could be made for certain SSI information. For
example, reports of security incidents or breaches at airports might lose SSI
protection 10 years after their creation, with the possibility that some portion(s) might
selectively continue to have SSI protection for an additional number of years. Thus,
such a report might be publicly released after 10 years, but with a paragraph or a few
sentences redacted. Other reports, such as upgraded security contingency plans,
vulnerability assessments, or information pertaining to research and development
projects, could be released after a longer period of protection. Nonetheless, allowing
for the public disclosure of certain kinds of reports, documents, and records
containing SSI after 10 years would make important materials available to, among
others, taxpayers, historians, and policy analysts.
Option 4: Create an Advisory Commission
Congress could establish an advisory commission or committee to study SSI
security arrangements and provide recommendations. Such a panel was most
recently created by Congress in 1994 — the Commission on Protecting and Reducing
Government Secrecy — which largely focused on the classified national security
information system.45 The new study commission might also be tasked with
considering the integration of SSI protection arrangements with existing information
protection systems, as well as exploring other congressional options identified here,
such as establishing time limits for discontinuing protection and strengthening SSI
A commission on SSI could offer several benefits. First, the commission option
allows for a full study of the SSI without needing to act immediately, while also
responding to public pressure. When the commission issues its report, Congress
could consider its recommendations and implement them on a selective basis, either
immediately, or at a later date. Implementation might occur thru legislative action
or voluntary TSA compliance.
The difficulty with this option is that many commission recommendations are
often not implemented. In addition, a commission’s report may not alleviate public
44 For more information on declassification arrangements, see CRS Report 97-771, Security
Classification Policy and Procedure: E.O. 12958, as Amended, by Harold C. Relyea.
45 See 108 Stat. 525. See U.S. Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government
Secrecy, Secrecy: Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government
Secrecy (Washington: GPO, 1997).
pressure to act. Legislative action would be delayed while waiting for a report. A
commission could create even greater public pressure to change the SSI regulations.
Option 5: Require Periodic Congressional Briefings
Congress could require TSA to provide periodic congressional briefings or
reports on SSI administration. Similar briefings and reports are currently given to the
House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which also require the Director of
Central Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the Director
of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to submit annual reports on intelligence
activities. The committees also often request department and agency heads to testify
about current intelligence issues.46 The Senate, when approving nominations, has
also expressed its sense that intelligence community officials should keep the Senate
Intelligence Committee fully and currently informed with respect to intelligence
activities, including anticipated activities and those that “may constitute” violations
of constitutional rights or other law.47 Each intelligence committee may also disclose
publicly any information that it determines would serve the “public interest.”48
Congressional briefings or reports could include details on a variety of SSI
matters, such as (1) incidents involving breaches of airport security and airport
security agreements; (2) the number of requests and denials for information
concerning alleged violators of a legal enforcement action; and (3) lists of legal cases
or actions involving SSI regulations.49
There are several benefits to requiring briefings or reports on SSI-related issues.
Both houses of Congress have established similar briefing systems for intelligence
matters; moreover, disputes over the disclosure of SSI should not be problematic
because Congress already holds closed hearings on sensitive intelligence matters.50
Requiring periodic briefings or reports could help Congress identify transportation
information in the public interest that should be disclosed.
There also are, however, several drawbacks to this option: a number of
committees have oversight authority over TSA. A solution to this problem might be
46 House Rule X, clause 11(c)(2), see Jefferson’s Manual, and Rules of the House of
Representative, 108th Cong., H.Doc. 107-284 (Washington: GPO, 2003) and S.Res. 400,th
section 4(b), see A Resolution Establishing A Select Committee On Intelligence, 94
Congress, available at [http://www.congress.gov/cgi-lis/bdquery], visited April 9, 2004.
47 S.Res. 400, section 11.
48 House Rule X, clause 11(g)(1) and S. Res. 400, section 8(a).
49 An alleged violator of a legal enforcement action has the right to request “copies of
portions of the enforcement investigative report (EIR), including sensitive security
information.” See 49 C.F.R. § 1520.3(d). For more information about airport security
incidents and airport security agreements, see CRS Report RS21727, Sensitive Security
Information (SSI) and Transportation Security: Background and Controversies, by Mitchel
50 A list of the open and closed hearings for the Senate Intelligence Committee is available
at [http://intelligence.senate.gov/hr108.htm], visited June 9, 2004.
to provide in the authorizing statute which committees have jurisdiction to
investigate SSI-related matters. Another drawback might be the lack of media and
public attention to the issue. Congress might be unwilling to require periodic
briefings if the issue does not appear to be a serious concern. In addition, Congress
would become overburdened if it tried to manage every matter or controversy arising
in each agency. Finally, pursuing this option might entangle Congress and the
relevant committees in the public dispute over SSI availability.
Option 6: Establish a Select Oversight Entity
Congress might also consider establishing a select oversight entity with powers
to review SSI management and its protection by TSA. A board with similar
functions was established in 1994 to settle disputes about the declassification of
national security information, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel
(ISCAP).51 The panel’s membership includes the Secretaries of State and Defense,
the Attorney General, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Archivist of the United
States, and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs. ISCAP is charged
with: (1) making final determinations on classification challenges; (2) approving,
denying, or amending exemptions from automatic declassification sought by
agencies; (3) making final determinations on mandatory declassification review
requests appealed to it; and, (4) generally, advising and assisting the President
regarding these matters. There is also the Information Security Oversight Office
(ISOO), mandated by E.O. 12958, which monitors executive branch security
classification and declassification policy and practices, and related matters.
Congress could create a similar entity, or designate an existing one, to monitor
SSI administration. The entity could have final authority on all SSI-related issues,
deciding to either reject or accept protection justifications made by TSA. The board
could also make recommendations for improving current SSI management and,
generally, advise Congress on ways to protect transportation security while providing
the public needed information.
There are several benefits to this option. First, it would establish a system for
reviewing all SSI protection decisions. In addition, the entity might alleviate SSI
management criticism. This option, however, could create added pressure when
entity leadership is considered. Former TSA or other transportation officials might
make up a large percentage of a board because of their expertise in the field of
transportation security. An unbalanced membership could create even more
criticism. A solution could be to established a review board similar to the one
created by Congress to re-examine President John F. Kennedy assassination records
that were still regarded as too sensitive to open to the public.52 Although the JFK
review board was presidentially appointed, the act required the President to select
board members from a list of names submitted by four professional associations: the
American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the
51 See EO 12958, 60 Fed. Reg. 19825, Federal Register, vol. 60, Apr. 20, 1995, p. 19825.
52 President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, P.L. 102-526.
Society of American Archivists, and the American Bar Association.53 Such a model
could be reproduced for a SSI review board.
There is, however, a final drawback potentially inherent in this option: review
by an oversight board may be too time-consuming for the release of information in
the public interest. By the time review occurs, the usefulness of the information may
The options identified here offer courses of action which Congress may pursue
with a view to balancing the need to protect sensitive transportation security
information and the realization of the people’s right to know about the policies,
activities, and operations of their government regarding transportation security. Each
option has demonstrated strengths and weaknesses. TSA and its SSI regulations have
been in existence in their present forms for less than three years. The agency has
demonstrated its willingness to work with complainants to make adjustments of its
SSI regulations and their application, but TSA’s cooperation may not be sufficient
to realize a successful balance between transportation security needs and the public’s
need for information. In this event Congress may choose to examine these or other
options that could provide a resolution to this issue of SSI information.
53 P.L. 102-562, sec. 7.