Pseudo-Classification of Executive Branch Documents: Problems with the Transportation Security Administration’s Use of the Sensitive Security Information Designation, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. May 29, 2014.
“Under the Air Transportation Security Act of 1974, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created a category of sensitive but unclassified information, frequently referred to as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI), and issued regulations that prohibit the disclosure of any information that would be detrimental to transportation security. These regulations restrict disclosure of SSI, exempting information properly marked as SSI from release under the Freedom of Information Act. After the 1988 bombing of a commercial airliner that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, the FAA made significant changes in aviation security, expanding the definition of SSI to include any information the FAA Administrator determined may reveal systemic vulnerabilities within the aviation system, or vulnerabilities of aviation facilities to attacks. Other definitional expansions included details of inspections and investigations, as well as alleged violations and certain agency findings. The SSI regulation was later expanded in order to limit access to protected information to those persons who have a “need-to-know.” While the SSI designation can protect sensitive information, it is also vulnerable to misuse. Bipartisan concerns about the use of the SSI designation by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have existed since the promulgation of the SSI regulations in 2004. Through its investigation, the Committee obtained witness testimony and documents that show possible misuse of the SSI designation by TSA. Witnesses detailed instances in which TSA barred the release of SSI documents against the advice of TSA’s SSI Office. TSA also released SSI documents against the advice of career staff in the SSI Office. The Committee’s investigation revealed that coordination challenges exist among the TSA Administrator, TSA’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA), and TSA’s SSI Office. Witnesses testified that many of the problems related to the SSI designation process emanate from the structure of the SSI regulation itself. TSA’s SSI Office is staffed with career employees tasked with assisting in the SSI designation process. The final authority on SSI designation, however, rests with the TSA Administrator. Pursuant to the regulation, the TSA
Administrator must provide certain documentation supporting his SSI designations. Yet, witnesses interviewed by the Committee stated that there were multiple incidents in which the SSI Office was not consulted or where TSA took actions against the advice of SSI Office officials. Further, such actions occurred without the TSA Administrator providing required written documentation supporting the action.”