House Committee On Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) Chairman Jason Chaffetz threatened to subpoena the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Thursday for documents the agency refuses to turn over to federal investigators probing whistleblower retaliation.
The Utah Republican was taken aback when Acting TSA Administrator Huban Gowadia said unwritten guidance from the Department of Homeland Security permits her agency to withhold the documents under the attorney-client privilege.
“Wait a second,” Chaffetz said. “You just make this up, it’s not in writing?”
“You have a week from Friday, OK?” Chaffetz told Gowadia later. “A week from Friday, or I issue a subpoena. And guess what? I don’t need a committee vote. I don’t need to go ask a judge. I can do it myself, and I’m telling you here on national television, you will get a subpoena for that information.”
Chaffetz also demanded the names of anyone else who has refused federal investigators records, and all of the records TSA has withheld from OSC, by March 10.
“If you don’t provide this by March 10, I will issue a subpoena,” Chaffetz said.
TSA in multiple instances claimed attorney-client privilege without knowing who the client was, according to OSC Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. Lerner said OSC has received more than 350 whistleblower complaints from TSA employees since 2012.
That was the year Congress granted TSA employees whistleblower protections.
DHS Inspector General (IG) John Roth, one of the hearing’s witnesses, said TSA has a history of withholding information, particularly by over-classifying information as unreleasable sensitive security information (SSI).
Officials with TSA, for instance, redacted from documents information that travelers should remove things like belts in airport security checks even though the same information appears on TSA’s website. (RELATED: TSA ‘Cannot Be Trusted’ To Manage Security Info, Says Top Federal Investigator)
“TSA’s misapplication of the SSI designation can have far-reaching consequences,” Roth told Chaffetz’ committee. “For instance, SSI designation have been used as a basis for challenging the disclosure of information by whistleblowers, which may have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers.”