Epic Intelligence FAIL

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 2, 2010

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You know, between this, and the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father sought to warn the United States and other Western authorities about his son’s increasing radicalization, the fact that transportation safety authorities failed to thwart Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Flight 253 becomes increasingly shocking. Thank goodness for the swift reaction of the passengers on the flight, but what if the next time, the passengers are either prevented from taking action, or do not realize that something is amiss?

Related to all of this, maybe Mark Kleiman needs to be grateful after all, that the nominee to head up the Transportation Security Administration is having his nomination held up in the Senate. After all, look what we just found out about him:

The White House nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration gave Congress misleading information about incidents in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database, possibly in violation of privacy laws, documents obtained by The Washington Post show.

The disclosure comes as pressure builds from Democrats on Capitol Hill for quick January confirmation of Erroll Southers, whose nomination has been held up by GOP opponents. In the aftermath of an attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day, calls have intensified for lawmakers to install permanent leadership at the TSA, a critical agency in enforcing airline security.

Southers, a former FBI agent, has described inconsistencies in his accounts to Congress as “inadvertent” and the result of poor memory of an incident that dates back 20 years. He said in a Nov. 20 letter to key senators obtained by The Post that he had accepted full responsibility long ago for a “grave error in judgment” in accessing confidential criminal records about his then-estranged wife’s new boyfriend.

His letter to Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, and Susan Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the panel, attempts to correct statements about the episode that were made in a sworn affidavit on Oct. 22 and have been reported.

[. . .]

Southers’s admission that he was involved in a questionable use of law enforcement background data has been a source of concern among civil libertarians, who believe the TSA performs a delicate balancing act in tapping into passenger information to find terrorists while also protecting citizens’ privacy.

Southers first described the episode in his October affidavit, telling the Senate panel that two decades ago he asked a San Diego Police Department employee to access confidential criminal records about the boyfriend. Southers said he had been censured by superiors at the FBI. He described the incident as isolated and expressed regrets about it.

The committee approved his nomination Nov. 19. One day later, Southers wrote to Lieberman and Collins saying his first account was incorrect. After reviewing documents, he wrote, he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife’s boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee, the letter said.

It is a violation of the federal Privacy Act to access such information without proper cause. The law says that “any person who knowingly and willfully requests or obtains any record concerning an individual from an agency under false pretenses shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000.”

In his letter, Southers said he simply forgot the circumstances of the searches, which occurred in 1987 and 1988 after he grew worried about his wife and their son, who had begun living with the boyfriend. The letter said: “During a period of great personal turmoil, I made a serious error in judgment by using my official position with the FBI to resolve a personal problem.” He did not specify the data system he accessed.

“I am distressed by the inconsistencies between my recollection and the contemporaneous documents, but I assure you that the mistake was inadvertent, and that I have at all times taken full responsibility for what I know to have been a grave error in judgment,” the letter said. “This incident was over twenty years ago, I was distraught and concerned about my young son, and never in my career since has there been any recurrence of this sort of conduct.”

Is there any doubt that if Southers were a Republican, Democrats would be raging against his nomination? And to claim that TSA cannot act to ensure the safety of airline passengers absent a head is silly, of course; TSA has an acting head to hold down the fort until a permanent head has been confirmed by the Senate, and last I read, Janet Napolitano had been confirmed to do her job as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

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