Dec 10 2009

TSA discloses discriminatory and improperly withheld procedures

There are no legally binding rules (other than those provided by the federal Privacy Act, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights treaties, all of which the TSA routinely ignores) specifying the limits of TSA authority at checkpoints, what you do and don’t have to do, and which questions you have to answer or orders you have to obey.

So the traveling public, and public interest organizations like the Identity Project, have been reduced to trying deduce the de facto “rules” from the TSA’s internal procedures manuals and directives to its staff, using the Freedom of Information Act — to the extent that we’ve been able to find out what documents to ask for by name, and that the TSA has been willing to release them, usually in incomplete and censored (“redacted”) form.

Now the TSA has done us a favor by posting an unredacted version of the document of which we’ve received only portions of an earlier version, and the complete current version of which is the subject of one of our current FOIA requests: the TSA’s “Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)”.

In posting the document on a federal government website (, for “Federal Business Opportunities”) as part of the public specifications for bidders on a TSA contract, the TSA added red outlines highlighting certain portions of the PDF document, and coded black rectangles to overlay them as a separate layer of the PDF file.  But they left the complete text and images unredacted, so that they could be selected, cut, and pasted into a text editor from any PDF reading software.  For your convenience, we’ve posted a copy with the black blocks removed, but the red highlights and everything else retained, so you can see what portions the TSA might have been trying (ineptly) to hide.  Despite false TSA claims that it “was immediately taken down from the Web site”, as of today the original version is still available on the same government site, although at a slightly more obscure URL.

If, like us, you were hoping to learn the non-rules for TSA checkpoints and “screening” (search and interrogation), the Screening Management SOP is disappointing.  It’s mostly about bureaucratic procedures for checkpoint supervisors.  There’s been a lot of excessive commotion about whether its posting was a security breach or provides a “road map for terrorists” (it doesn’t), but little attention is being paid to some more significant things it reveals.

Here’s what we think is really significant about this document, and its release, and what we’re doing next: Read More