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10,000 TSA staff to get secret intel

Feb. 12, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By THOMAS FRANK   |   Comments
President Obama will nominate a retired Army officer and career intelligence man to head up the Transportation Security Administration, the White House says.
President Obama will nominate a retired Army officer and career intelligence man to head up the Transportation Security Administration, the White House says. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

About 10,000 airport security workers will get access to secret intelligence that could help stop terrorist attacks on planes.

The Transportation Security Administration plan aims to help its officers spot terrorists by giving them more detailed information about tactics and threats, TSA officials and security experts said. The agency, viewed by some as throngs of workers pawing through luggage at checkpoints, hopes to empower its higher-level workers as part of an effort to professionalize airport security.

The 10,000 people in line to get classified information are managers, supervisors and "behavior detection officers" who roam airports looking for suspicious people. They represent about 20 percent of TSA's airport workforce and exclude screeners who scan passengers and bags.

The information will give workers details about terrorist "tactics, planning, operations and threats," TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said. Those details "give context to things they see every day which may otherwise not appear unusual" and let workers "exercise discretion" in dealing with travelers, Payne added. She would not elaborate on specific intelligence the workers will get. All TSA airport workers now get daily intelligence briefings that include less sensitive information.

So far, 750 people have been cleared to get classified information, Payne said, adding that it will take two more years to get all 10,000 workers cleared.

The information could include copies of terrorist training videos or tips vaguely describing a terrorism suspect, experts said. "Some classified information seems innocuous but is classified because it was derived from an intercepted phone conversation," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence-policy specialist for the Federation of American Scientists.

"This could enable broader sharing of some kinds of sensitive information," Aftergood said.

TSA workers are getting "Secret" clearance which ranks above Confidential but below Top Secret.

About 2.5 million Americans have security clearances, many of them in the military or working for defense contractors, and some working for the Homeland Security Department, Aftergood said.

A "limited number" of Border Patrol agents can receive classified information, said T.J. Bonner, head of a Border Patrol labor union.

Since the 9/11 attacks prompted criticism about a lack of information sharing, the federal government has increasingly given classified details to state and local authorities, Aftergood said.

"This is a brilliant idea," said Randall Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security and a former National War College professor. "It shows the TSA is focusing more on where it should be focused on the people getting on airplanes."

Others fear a greater risk that intelligence will be leaked. "When you open security secrets to that large a group, it could lead to somebody who's dangerous finding out information that enables a terrorist attack itself," said Michael Greenberger, head of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.

TSA, created in 2002, has recently pushed to improve its operations and image. It has given screeners badges and sophisticated X-ray machines, created specialized jobs for people to analyze suspected bombs and suspicious passengers, and taken over the duty of checking boarding passes.

Thomas Frank reports for USA Today.

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