Big Brother comes knocking

It was a peaceful post-Christmas evening in Chris Elliott's house, one of many beige dwellings in his Winter Springs neighborhood. He was checking e-mail while the kids were having a bath before their 7 p.m. bedtime.

Someone knocked on the door. Elliott went to see who it was, as did his three spotted Bengal cats. They found a smiling Robert Flaherty, who flashed his badge. Special agent, federal Department of Homeland Security, Flaherty and the badge said.

"The minute he said that, I knew what it was about," Elliott says.

In the contrail left by the Christmas Day "underwear bomber," the Transportation Security Administration (a division of DHS) issued hasty new travel regulations — but only gave the full document to airlines and airports, leaving actual travelers flying blind.

Elliott says Flaherty casually told him, "I understand that you have some kind of blog."

He does: He's blogged about travel since 1997, writes for several major media outlets, and does the "Travel Troubleshooter" column in the Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune papers. Before that, he worked for Travel magazine and spent two years as a business columnist at the Wall Street Journal, for which he trained at the University of California Berkeley's journalism school.

In those years he's built up contacts in the travel industry. Many just want to help the traveling public, Elliott says; and at least one of them felt that public interest could be served by handing over the TSA's new security directive. That's what Elliott posted. Another travel blogger, Connecticut-based Steve Frischling, did the same. Both drew a nearly unprecedented government response.

He got the security directive, SD 1544-09-06, early on Dec. 27. Elliott says he thought the information would help travelers, but wouldn't tell "the bad guys" anything they didn't already know, or that wasn't obvious.

"Everything in that document had already been released," he says. A general description of the new standards is even posted on the TSA's own blog. But Elliott did take time to sound out other reporters and legal experts. One was an experienced investigative reporter whose opinion he trusts.

"Afterwards, he calls me and says, ‘Oops.'"

Others cited the Pentagon Papers, the landmark 1971 media-freedom case that said the New York Times could legally publish a leaked study on the Vietnam War. But that was the country's most powerful newspaper.

"I am just me," Elliott says.

He didn't expect the feds would be happy, but he also didn't expect government wrath to materialize on his doorstep. "The TSA is an agency in disarray, so part of me thought they wouldn't even notice," he says.

On Dec. 28, Frischling Tweeted something about being watched by "black helicopters" or "unmarked sedans." That was enough to make Elliott nervous, but then Frischling said he was just joking. Later, he blogged that two TSA agents grilled him for a couple of hours on Dec. 29, then came back the next day and took his laptop computer. (They later offered to buy him a new one.)

For refusing to name sources, the two bloggers could have been tossed in jail indefinitely on a contempt-of-court charge. That happened to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed for 85 days in 2005.

Elliott invited Flaherty in, and they sat down. Flaherty smiled. "He said, ‘I just want a name from you.'"

Elliott refused to give up sources, at least not without a subpoena.

"He says ‘OK,' and reaches into his briefcase, and he hands me this," Elliott recalls, producing a copy of a federal administrative subpoena (which he also posted on his blog). Then Elliott's journalism-school training kicked in. He told Flaherty he had to talk to his lawyer, and noted that all the basic information he posted was already floating around. "Is this really necessary?" he asked.

Flaherty's smile stretched into a grin. "He said, ‘Sir, you've been served.'"

The whole exchange only took 10 minutes, barely enough time for the kids to run out and see who the guest was. After Flaherty left, Elliott's youngest daughter wanted to know if "grandpa" would be coming back. Elliott told her he hoped not.

Elliott's first thought was, "I'm going to go to jail for this."

As soon as Flaherty left, Elliott wrote a blog post about his subpoena and sent Tweets to his 13,000 followers. Then he called his lawyer, Anthony Elia of Brooklyn, N.Y., who specializes in First Amendment issues. He told Elia he was willing to go to jail if he had to.

"And we started making arrangements," Elliott says. Then he broke the news to his wife and three children.

"How do you explain to a 7-year-old that daddy's going to go to jail?"

Elliott didn't sleep that night. He worried that agents would come back with a search warrant and grab his computers and cell phones, as they did Frischling's laptop. By Dec. 31, however, his lawyer had informal assurances that wouldn't happen. He called his source — or sources — and reassured them that he would protect their names.

"They were very, very worried," he says. Getting caught leaking information would end their careers.

"I said, ‘If I reveal your name, then I'm going to lose my career as well.'"

His lawyer told him not to talk publicly about the case, but Frischling was already on TV, and the resulting public flap brought a change.

"Within 48 hours, they had withdrawn the subpoenas, thank God," Elliott says.

In the meantime, Elliott got in contact with the Times' Miller. "The first inkling I got that there was going to be a shift was when I talked with Judy Miller," he says, adding that Miller is now his "e-mail buddy." Miller told him that she had heard the DHS might drop the subpoena.

"I didn't dare to hope that her sources were right," he says. She assured him they were reliable.

By Jan. 1, Elliott's lawyer was saying the matter would be dropped. "I said, ‘I need that in writing,'" Elliott remembers. When the confirmation arrived, he duly posted the news on his blog.

"It was over as quickly as it began," he says. He thinks the feds would rather forget the whole thing. That was, after all, the same week Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made her much-derided "the system worked" comment, and Erroll Southers, nominated to head the TSA, was stumbling toward withdrawal.

The government isn't exactly chatty about the motives for its flip-flop. TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz sent Orlando Weekly an e-mailed statement that says, in its entirety, "TSA takes any breach in security very seriously. In light of the posting of sensitive security information on the web, TSA sought to identify where the information came from. The subpoenas are no longer in effect."

Elliott suspects the government may have found what it wanted on Frischling's confiscated hard drive. His own sources, however, have reported no repercussions.

Elliott thinks he and Frischling may have gotten rougher treatment than full-time reporters for regular news outlets might have.

"There's a common theme that ‘You're just a blogger,'" he says. "They think that we're easy targets, and in some ways, they're right."

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