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Government Privacy United States Your Rights Online

TSA Nominee's Snooping Raises Privacy Concerns 134

Hugh Pickens writes "The Washington Post reports that Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, gave Congress misleading information about incidents in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database, possibly in violation of privacy laws. Southers accepted full responsibility for a 'grave error in judgment' when he accessed confidential criminal records twenty years ago about his then-estranged wife's new boyfriend. 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."
"In his letter to key senators on November 20, 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. '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,' Southers wrote. Civil liberties specialists say that the misuse of databases has been common among law enforcement authorities for many years, despite an array of local, state and federal prohibitions intended to protect personal information. Studies have found that police at every level examine records of celebrities, women they have met and political rivals. '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,' Southers added."
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TSA Nominee's Snooping Raises Privacy Concerns

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  • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:41PM (#30616356)

    Inadvertence is incompatible with "full responsibility."

    Inadvertence doesn't make sense when you figure out the number separate, independent, goal-directed decisions that he needed to make in his effort to use a government resource to advance his personal agenda.

    When he says that the act was inadvertent, either he doesn't know what the word means or he is lying.

    Now they want to give him control over one of the most intrusive databases of all time?

  • by alecto ( 42429 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:50PM (#30616430) Homepage

    I suspect folks with that kind of access who misuse it at least on occasion are far more common than those who don't. What surprises me here, actually, is that there were any checks that resulted in him having been caught in the first place.

  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:50PM (#30616432)

    It was 20 frickin' years ago, and he was going (or about to go) through a divorce.

    Him being a Democrat, I'm sure he's Evil in a dozen other ways, but unless he still snoops on a regular (or even occasional) basis, this is one item to give him a pass on.

  • by alecto ( 42429 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:56PM (#30616460) Homepage

    Because he had a good personal reason to abuse his access and did so thinking he would never have been caught makes him the perfect man for the job? I disagree--he demonstrated a willingness to misuse a public trust for personal gain that I doubt the passage of time has magically cured so much as made him better at covering his tracks.

  • Re:Lets vote... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:59PM (#30616486)
    It was the highest turnout in 40 years. And honestly, its better to have a low turnout of well-informed voters than a high turnout of cable-news watching voters who vote only on who the person on TV says to.
  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:59PM (#30616488)

    And he was under a lot of stress.

    Sure. I'll give him a pass on this also.

    As soon as he voluntarily removes himself from the running. Actions have consequences. Once you make a decision of that magnitude to violate the ethics of your job, you SHOULD know that you are no longer eligible to manage other people who might be under similar stress with similar responsibilities.

  • by haapi ( 16700 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:08PM (#30616532)

    I would imagine he's a tad more mature now than 20 years ago and has more perspective on what constitutes "personal turmoil".

    I say confirm him -- he knows the spotlight will be on him, and those under him know that such activities will not be countenanced.

  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:10PM (#30616542)

    Often times the best people for a job are the ones who've screwed up in a similar way in the past and have learned from the mistake. They can be far less likely to do the same thing again than someone who has never been presented with the same situation.

    However, since it revealed a character flaw, that person is still not ideal. The ideal person is someone who was presented with the same situation and did not abuse their sensitive position.

    In other words, the man (or woman, obviously) you want for this job is the man who was estranged from his wife, who then moved herself and their son in with a new boyfriend, yet resisted illegaly searching the federal database for information about the guy and instead went about it another way.

    That's who you want here, though the guy who learned from his mistakes would not be the worst choice in the world.

  • by selven ( 1556643 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:17PM (#30616588)

    We want people in the TSA who don't make sudden emotion-driven decisions but instead can think rationally, even if a terrorist flies a plane into a building again.

  • by Toonol ( 1057698 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:21PM (#30616618)
    I agree. It was twenty years ago. We've had presidents who did worse in their past (isn't it established that both Bush and Obama have used cocaine?). Past behavior may be important to establish what a candidate will do in office, but after subsequent decades of personal growth, that one incident is an unimportant data point. If it's a consistent pattern, sure, crucify him for it.
  • by masterzora ( 871343 ) <masterzora@gmail ... inus threevowels> on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:28PM (#30616682) Homepage
    I agree that this guy deserves not to still be slammed for this, but to say that using cocaine is worse than the violation of personal privacy is just silly.
  • by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:48PM (#30616800)

    You're being optimistic.

    It's not "impose harsher restrictions to prevent that specific type of attack", it's "impose very visible restrictions that look to clueless voters like they will prevent that specific type of attack"

  • by jeko ( 179919 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:58PM (#30616878)

    He committed a felony by illegally accessing privileged information. He did this with perfect knowledge and forethought that he WAS committing a felony. He did it for petty reasons and personal gratification. He abused his position for personal gain. He perjured himself to cover it up before Congress.

    Had you or I done this, we'd be writing about it from inside a penitientiary.

    Now, if you're going to argue that he has learned from mistakes, that he is contrite, that he has since reformed, the time and place to make those arguments are at HIS SENTENCING HEARING, not his next job interview.

    After a breach like that, the only public trust this man should be given is a choice between the grill and the fry machine.

  • Re:Lets vote... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:09PM (#30616968)

    It does not take any third parties to mitigate those, all it takes is decreasing the size of the mobs and increasing the influence of the minorities.

    Which is what third parties do. Ok, lets say we have 5% of people who want a government as the green party wants it, we have 5% who want a pure free market, total civil rights libertarian government. We have 5% of people who want a communist government, 5% who want a socialist government. 20% who want a government that is centered on outside affairs and 60% who want a government that taxes heavily but gives lots of benefits. Is it fair that in that situation 40% of the population has -zero- representation in congress because the 60% got their representative and the rest got none. A fair way of doing it would be proportional representation.

    Our current method is archaic and needs to be reformed. Badly. Why? Because we used to have a tiny federal government, and a large, but not too big state government. Before the civil war, each state or each region could easily find laws that would benefit them. Anything that benefited agriculture would benefit the south while anything benefiting industry would benefit the north with few exceptions. Today, that isn't the case. There are high-tech companies in Kansas, industry is booming in the south, the northern US has a lot of agriculture, and even inside states there is division. Take for example Missouri, on both the east and west sides of the state are large metropolitan areas (St. Louis and Kansas City) but in the center of the state there isn't much of anything (and anyone who has ever driven in the midwest can testify to that) only farm land. So what might be good for Kansas City and St. Louis might be terrible for those living in the middle of the state and vice versa.

    What we need to structure our voting systems like is to allow for reforms to allow for national elections of 100 more senators, each one would be chosen from votes allowing third parties. For example, there might be 40 republicans, 40 democrats, 5 libertarians, 3 green party members, 2 members of the constitution party, and the rest members of smaller parties. This way, -everyone- gets their voice out. Not just the majority in each state.

    While it is true that reforming the election of a single president would be hard, the ability for congress to have the voice of all the people, and not just the majority is essential in making change happen.

    The second thing we do is split our government into three branches of equal power. One branch is directly elected (congress), another is partially directly elected (Executive/President), and the third is not elected at all but appointed (Judicial). Each has specific duties and powers designed to balance against abuses by the other two.

    And really, they aren't equal in the amount that it affects the individual person. Congress has the power to change the lives of most people by making things illegal or legal. The president really only has the power to affect the masses when it comes to A) War B) Executive Orders and C) signing legislation. The other part of the executive branch (police) really need to be elected by the masses due to the -many- abuses of power they commit on a daily basis. And other than the supreme court striking down or upholding laws, it generally doesn't affect the masses. It can certainly affect individuals, but not the masses.

  • by rhizome ( 115711 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:17PM (#30617026) Homepage Journal

    It may have been just one mis-judgment in a long career of good judgments, but the TSA is so fucked up as it is we don't need someone who may be going on personal vendettas via airline security.

    Absolutely. I prefer a standard of putting people in charge who are not prone to grave errors in judgment. That eliminates everybody who has been caught for such.

  • Disband the TSA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Russ Nelson ( 33911 ) <> on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:32PM (#30617142) Homepage

    Why are we seeking a new boss for the TSA when we should disband the TSA (Terrorist Security Agency). Are you terrorized? I'm not! So why are we being asked to be terrorized when IT IS OUR ENEMIES THAT WISH US TO BE TERRORIZED?

  • Irrelevant (Score:5, Insightful)

    by McDrewbie ( 530348 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:34PM (#30617160)
    It doesn't matter. Almost everyone takes some sort of advantage/liberties at their jobs, especially when younger. Waiters get free food and drink, office workers look at FB and steal pens. Glen Beck shills for gold. Politicians can "fundraise." He just happened to have the ability to run background checks.
  • Re:Lets vote... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dangitman ( 862676 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @11:21PM (#30619096)

    And honestly, its better to have a low turnout of well-informed voters than a high turnout of cable-news watching voters who vote only on who the person on TV says to.

    It depends on what you mean by "well-informed." In this case, I suspect you mean "people who vote the same way I do."

  • Re:Disband the TSA (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Friday January 01, 2010 @11:43PM (#30619222) Homepage Journal

    Disbanding the TSA would be the same as admitting that the last 7 years of security theater was totally pointless. No politician is going to touch that with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

The optimum committee has no members. -- Norman Augustine