Washington • The Department of Homeland Security has accused Rep. Jason Chaffetz of disclosing sensitive information during a congressional hearing this week that could help America's enemies.
Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee over national security, held a hearing Tuesday looking into the Transportation Security Administration and pointed out that in the past decade there have been 25,000 security breaches at the nation's airports.
The information also appeared a day earlier in an Associated Press dispatch and in USA Today.
Homeland Security Deputy General Counsel Joseph B. Maher said in a letter made available Friday by Chaffetz's committee that it was a "matter of serious concern" that information shared with the committee was released publicly.
"The purpose of [sensitive security information protocols] is to protect the traveling public by ensuring that security information is not made available to those who seek to do our country harm," he said in the letter. "The document publicly disclosed by your subcommittee contained information about past security breaches: a topic of particular interest to our adversaries."
Chaffetz, in a statement, shot back that he had not by any means released information that was classified.
"This allegation is false," Chaffetz said. "I did not disclose any information that was in violation of federal law."
The Utah Republican said he also notified the House Ethics Committee about the letter and indicated that the allegations are false.
Homeland Security's concern centers on a seven-page document produced by TSA. The document, obtained by The Tribune and other reporters covering this week's hearing, includes the phrase, "Sensitive Security Information," at the top of each page and warns at the bottom that "no part of this record may be disclosed to persons without a 'need to know'" authority.
"Unauthorized release may result in civil penalty or other action," the advisory states.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who heads the full Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said such a designation only applies to the department's employees and not to journalists, the public or Congress.
Issa also took Maher to task, arguing that Homeland Security did not mark the report as secret, top secret or confidential three of the actual legal classifications for sensitive information and that the department sent the information via email over a nonsecured network.
"Mr. Maher should know that if the department reasonably expects that any disclosure of the information contained in a document would cause damage to national security, then it should classify it appropriately," Issa said in a letter sent Friday.
The committee chairman went on to demand the department answer eight questions about Maher's letter by Monday. He also instructed the department to preserve any documents regarding the preparation of the letter and other materials for a committee investigation.
Issa also says he is concerned that Maher's letter was a "threat" to Congress that "the administration will seek retribution when nonclassified information is shared with the public."
"This act of intimidation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," Issa said.
A Homeland Security spokesman declined comment.