NORAD orders Web deletion of transcript

In latest move to clamp down on Web, a transcript of a public hearing in Virginia about airspace restrictions vanishes. Image: Air Defense Identification Zone

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
In an unusual follow-up to a public event, the Defense Department has ordered that a transcript of an open hearing on aviation restrictions be yanked from the Web.

Maj. Gen. M. Scott Mayes, the head of the North American air defense command, ordered the internal review that flagged the hearing's transcript as problematic and led to its deletion from a government Web site, CNET News.com has learned.

The public hearing was held Jan. 18 at the Airport Marriott in Dulles, Va., and was discussed in local news reports. Its purpose was to ask for public opinions about recent airspace security restrictions near the nation's capital, which have cost local businesses some $45 million a year in lost revenue and have even prompted some general aviation pilots to move elsewhere.

One of the pilots who testified was Lt. Cmdr. Tom Bush, a U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet pilot who also flies a small civilian plane and said he was speaking as a private individual.

"Freedom and security are polar opposites, and I am not willing to give up my freedom for the sake of terrorists," Bush said during the hearing, according to a report at AviationNow.com.

The report also said Bush suggested the airspace restrictions were irrational because a terrorist could pretend to fly through the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to nearby Dulles airport, make a right-hand turn at the last minute, and be over downtown Washington, D.C., in four minutes. The ADIZ is a ring stretching almost 40 miles around Washington, D.C.

Maj. Gen. M. Scott Mayes Maj. Gen. M. Scott Mayes

"There may be some operational security concerns with the time line he laid out," Michael Kucharek, the chief of media relations for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Kucharek said that "there were some operational security concerns revealed by this person who had knowledge but appeared as a public citizen, which we think was out of line. The disclosure of that information could go directly to national security concerns."

The Bush administration has been criticized in the past by open government advocates for its aggressive efforts to avoid the disclosure of information that historically has been public. In 2003, the U.S. Army surreptitiously pulled the plug on one of its more popular Web sites after a report embarrassing to the military appeared on it. In another example, the names of the members of the Defense Science Board--an obscure but influential advisory body that influences military policy and had a budget of $3.6 million a year--have vanished from the group's public Web site.

A representative for the Transportation Security Administration said Friday that the agency received a letter from the Defense Department requesting a review of the transcript and that process is continuing.

The 369-page transcript of the event (part 1 and part 2), previously posted on the Federal Aviation Administration's Web site, has been replaced with a notice saying it is "presently unavailable."

Lt. Cmdr. Bush could not be reached for comment. One pilot who was at the hearing reported that Bush said that Americans kicked out the British, tamed the West, won two World Wars, put a man on the moon--and should start acting like it.

Some pilots expressed skepticism that Bush disclosed anything sensitive and suggested that the deletion was because he criticized the government's security apparatus. Representatives from NORAD, TSA, FAA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and Customs and Border Protection were on the panel hearing testimony and remained silent during Bush's testimony.

"The fact that TSA is an out of control dysfunctional agency is a given, so it may be just another example of their ongoing buffoonery," Lee Schiek, the manager of Maryland's College Park Airport, wrote in an e-mail message on Thursday. "On the other hand, this could be an attempt to rewrite history to minimize the public record sentiment regarding the ADIZ. In any event, since its inception, TSA has consistently demonstrated their inability to do the right thing, and this latest example should not go unchallenged."

Amy von Walter, a representative for the TSA, said Friday that the review of Bush's comments for so-called Sensitive Security Information was complete. "We did a review of the testimony to make sure there was no SSI contained," von Walter said. "We did not find any."

Von Walter said TSA had not demanded the removal of the information, and that the Defense Department had. After TSA completes its review of the remainder of the transcript, she said, all or some of it will be reposted.

The ADIZ is opposed by general aviation pilots--that is, pilots who fly smaller aircraft such as a Cessna, Mooney or Piper--because it imposes strict security rules that increase bureaucracy and can overload air traffic controllers.

It was created as a supposedly temporary measure after Sept. 11, 2001, but the Bush administration has suggested that it become permanent. More than 21,300 comments, almost entirely critical of the ADIZ, were filed in the FAA proceeding that led to January's public hearing in Virginia.

Many comments said that a terrorist could easily defeat the purpose of the ADIZ by filing the paperwork, talking to air traffic controllers, and then turning toward Washington, D.C., at the last moment. Others said it was odd to worry about general aviation aircraft that typically have two to six seats and can carry less than most SUVs.

The FAA said Thursday the transcript might be restored soon. It is being reviewed "and no final decisions have been made," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. "I think that you'll see virtually all of that reposted fairly quickly."