Congress Urged to Compel TSA to Release Pre-9/11 Documents Kept from Families

March 15, 2006
Charging that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wrongfully denied them access to documents once in the public domain, the 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism is calling on Congress to force TSA to change its practices on classifying materials as "sensitive security information" (SSI).

"Why has TSA provided documents to attorneys for an admitted terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, but denied them to us?" asked Julie Sweeney Roth of Yarmouthport, Mass., whose husband, Brian Sweeney, was a passenger on United flight 175. "Whose side is TSA on?"

"The truth is our most powerful weapon in the war on terrorism," said Alice Hoglan of Los Gatos, Calif., mother of Mark Bingham, a United Flight 93 passenger. Contending that TSA would be fulfilling its responsibility to protect the nation's transportation system by releasing the information the families are requesting, Hoglan said, "It was because my son and his fellow passengers learned the truth about the hijackers' intentions that they were able to save countless lives as their final, brave act. That is why I am outraged that TSA is trying to hide the truth and making Americans less safe."

"SSI should have a different acronym -- CYA," said Dr. Stephen Alderman of Bedford, N.Y., whose son, Peter Alderman, died at the World Trade Center. "The materials we're requesting deal with pre-9/11 security procedures that have changed, making them of no use to would-be terrorists. Some aired on national television and were published in newspapers. TSA's only conceivable motive is avoiding embarrassment or protecting the airlines."

Sweeney Roth and Stephen and Elizabeth Alderman are among a group of 9/11 family members meeting with members of Congress as part of an effort to educate U.S. senators and representatives about the problems at TSA and to change TSA's SSI practices.

Congress created the SSI designation to enable TSA to prevent the release of information that the agency determines presents a threat to the nation's transportation system. The 9/11 Families made clear that they are not challenging TSA's right to withhold information that could present a genuine security threat. Instead, they charged that TSA is abusing its authority by stamping as SSI and keeping secret a host of materials that they believe pose no threat – including many documents once openly available but now shrouded in secrecy.

TSA's classification of these documents and its insistence that its SSI decisions are essentially unreviewable violate the intent of Congress, the families charged. They cited a June 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, blasting TSA for its failure to implement adequate policies, guidance, procedures, internal controls and training regarding the SSI process. Though TSA claims to have subsequently set in place a structure for reviewing SSI, the agency has still failed to offer any guidelines by which it trains its employees to determine what is and is not SSI, despite many congressional requests.

The 9/11 Families charged that many of TSA's SSI classifications "are so absurd, they turn real life into satire." For example: When the videotape showing hijackers passing through security at Washington Dulles airport on 9/11 was aired on NBC, TSA issued a two-line press release boasting that it "strongly validates the dramatic changes that TSA has made in the world of aviation security." Now, TSA has classified the tape as SSI. Yet TSA itself released a similar videotape showing lead hijacker Mohammed Atta passing through security at the airport in Portland, Maine, on 9/11.

TSA has taken material that has long been in the public domain – including information published in the Congressional Record and major newspapers – and labeled it SSI.

TSA has classified as SSI the five Federal Aviation Administration warnings to the airlines issued in the months before 9/11, despite the fact that they were quoted in the 9/11 Commission's report and discussed in public testimony.

The 9/11 Families also noted that TSA's policies resulted in the dismissal of charges against a baggage handler who had been caught stealing from a passenger's luggage, because TSA labeled incriminating materials as SSI and refused to turn them over to the court.

The 9/11 Families are urging Congress to compel TSA to fulfill the families' requests for access to pre-9/11 documents and materials that were once publicly available. They noted that a House Appropriations Subcommittee wrote last year that it "expects the department to try to release as much, not as little, information to the public as possible," and that U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said from the bench that TSA's conduct in reviewing SSI "is cruel and inhuman to the people involved."

Some of the 9/11 Families are plaintiffs in litigation against the airlines and are seeking documents withheld by TSA, but others who are not are joining the effort to educate Congress about TSA's abuse of its authority to keep information secret.

"This is a matter of principle," said Hoglan, who settled with the Victims' Compensation Fund and thus cannot sue the airlines. "It's about our right to know the truth about why our loved ones were killed. It's about protecting our democracy and our system of checks and balances."

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