Incident of the Week: Twitter Used In Sting Operation To Find Out Who Leaked TSA Security Directive


Rumors are circulating that Special Agents from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been posing as a Connecticut blogger on Twitter to find out who leaked airport security screening procedures put in place after the recent attack by the “underwear bomber.”  This is a new twist in what some are describing as an overzealous investigation of government documents posted online.

As many of us found out on Christmas Day, a 23 year old Nigerian man identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently ignite an incendiary or explosive device in his lap while he was sitting on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit.  While no passengers were harmed, the same cannot be said for the would-be bomber’s lap, which combusted.  In reaction to the attack, issued Security Directive 1544-09-06 directing TSA airport officers to pat down 100% of all passengers, “concentrating on upper legs and torso,” with the notable exception of heads of state.

Two days later on December 27, 2009, the TSA Security Directive was posted to the Flying with Fish blog run by Steven Frischling and Chris Elliot’s blog at  TSA was not pleased with this attention.  Apparently, the TSA considered the Security Directive secret, even though it was sent to thousands of airports and airlines around the world and arguably was somewhat obvious to anyone in an airport around Christmas-time.  The agency launched an immediate investigation, sending agents and subpoenas to Frishling’s and Elliot’s homes (the text of which is available at his blog).

Frischling ultimately cooperated with the probe, gave them access to his BlackBerry, iPhone and computers and let TSA agents know that his source had contacted him anonymously using a free email service.

Then an unusual message appeared on blogger Steven Frischling’s Twitter account:

To the gentleman who sent Flying With Fish the TSA Security Directive … Thank You! Can you drop me an email?I have a question. Thanks-Fish.

According to sources interviewed by Wired, a TSA agent took possession of Frischling’s BlackBerry, typed the Twitter update into the device and then directed Frischling to click on the “send” button to post the message to his Twitter page.  According to Wired’s source, this was an attempt to induce the anonymous informer to send Frischling an email and draw him or her out of hiding.  Of course, implicit in this strategy is that the TSA already had or expected to gain access to Frischling’s email, as well.  The TSA deny this account.  Other bloggers, such as TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, have pointed the finger at Frischling and have criticized him for caving to government pressure and cooperating in the effort to oust his own confidential source.

No doubt, the TSA is under considerable pressure to heighten its security since early December, when an employee inadvertently posted online the agency’s highly classified airport security operating manual.

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