By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/4/2010 9:44:29 AM ET 2010-01-04T14:44:29

Only one question remained after I’d been slapped with a subpoena by the Department of Homeland Security, an agonizing decision that I would go to jail to protect my sources if necessary and a Hollywood ending on New Year’s Eve: Why was Special Agent Robert Flaherty smiling when he knocked on my front door?

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Was it the “gotcha” grin of a highway patrol officer who clocked you doing 55 in a 25-mile-an-hour zone? As in, “Son, you have any idea how fast you wuz goin’ ”?

Was he being polite, knowing that he’d come to my home in the Orlando suburbs to interrogate me at the worst possible time — with my three kids in the bathtub?

Or was it a nervous smile, because he was aware that serving a journalist with a subpoena would trigger a media feeding frenzy?

Regardless, I was in trouble. Big trouble. On Dec. 29, I had reluctantly published a government directive that outlined the new security procedures required of airlines after the failed Christmas Day terrorist bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane using a packet of powder sewn into his underwear.

Although I wasn’t the only person to post the document, I was identified as the first. And that’s what brought in the feds .

My experience in subpoena-land, which concluded two days after it began when the government abruptly withdrew its demand that I identify my sources, taught me a valuable set of lessons about the Transportation Security Administration.

Whether you think my decision to publish a federal security directive on my blog was brave or foolish — or both — the information I’ve learned can help you have a better flight.

Don’t freak out.
I admit that when a federal agent is standing at your doorstep, your heart starts beating faster than a KitchenAid set to frappé. “Here’s my badge,” Special Agent Flaherty said. “Why don’t you take a look at it?”

Presenting your credentials serves two purposes: One legitimate, the other not. It’s important that I know I’m dealing with a real agent, of course. But this is also Security Theater 101. Most — if not all of this — is for show.

And it’s nothing to be afraid of. Ever. Next time you feel your pulse quicken when you’re at the screening checkpoint, remember that.

Take a time-out.
When someone in uniform orders you to do something, most travelers’ first instinct is to comply immediately. As a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen, that was certainly my reflexive response when a federal agent visited my home.

Thank God for that journalism law class I was required to take as a graduate student at Berkeley. Had I missed it, I might have rolled over and let the government have its way. But then I heard myself say, “I need to talk to my lawyer” and the agent’s response: “I had a feeling you’d say that.” (He was still smiling.)

You’d be smart to take a moment, too, when you’re dealing with the TSA. For example, you have the right to request that your screening take place in a private screened area but you have to ask for it.  Similarly, you can ask for a hand-inspection of your religious, cultural or ceremonial items, although religious knives, swords and similar objects are not permitted through security checkpoints.

My point is, don’t say, “yes” until you’ve thought about what you’re agreeing to.

There are some things you’ll never know.
Interestingly, what led to the publication of the security directive was a total void of useful information about what to expect when flying.

I had asked the TSA for a comment but it didn’t respond. The statements on its Web site about additional security precautions were vague, at best. Why did the TSA withhold this information, choosing to reveal it only to airlines and airports? Didn’t the public need to know about the additional restrictions when flying into the country? What could possibly be gained from keeping such changes secret?

I don’t know. But one thing seems clear: Unless the TSA is reformed soon, we should anticipate more secret directives and hopelessly vague directions from the agency.

In other words, we shouldn’t presume to be treated with any kind of consistency when we’re screened at the airport.

Politeness matters — but so does professionalism.
I’ve gone to great lengths to point out how well-behaved Special Agent Flaherty was, because the agents who visited my colleague Steve Frischling, who also published the security directive on his blog, were apparently neither polite or professional in the end.

They threatened him with a criminal search warrant and promised to have him fired from his job as a blogger for KLM. The agents also allegedly damaged his computer after they searched it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the DHS faces a lawsuit or ethics complaint in the aftermath of Frischling’s experience.

So what does any of this mean to you? I think there’s something to be said for minding your manners when you deal with the TSA, as well as traveling by the book. Don’t just pack right, but do the right thing when you are screened. What’s that? Thankfully, the TSA tells you on its site.

Plan ahead
On the morning after the government issued its demand, I had to make some difficult decisions. Special Agent Flaherty called to remind me I had until then next afternoon to comply with the subpoena.

Meanwhile, I had conferred with my attorney and my family about the next steps. I’d also spoken with my sources. There only seemed to be one way forward: I had to fight the subpoena and, if necessary, go to jail.

One of the most difficult conversations was with my editor at msnbc.com, letting him know of that decision. Fortunately, I had pre-written several weeks of columns, so if I was imprisoned, my commentaries could continue. There’s a lesson here about the importance of planning. If TSA had wanted to shut down my blog and end my commentaries, it would have been difficult, given that I have filed my stories in advance.

Similarly, a little research into the destination you’re visiting and the likely security requirements at the airport, could prove useful on the day you travel.

What’s the takeaway from these experiences?

For me, there’s just one: Without a federal shield law to protect journalists, there will be more visits from the likes of Special Agent Flaherty. It’s not just the jailed reporters that I’m worried about, but also the likely chilling effect on the news. If I can’t protect my sources, then I might choose to ignore many important stories.

But I probably won’t. Before he left, I told the agent that if I received another security directive, I wouldn’t hesitate to publish it.

“We may get to be friends,” I added.

I believe the lesson learned for the rest of us is this: This is our problem. We fund the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA with our taxes. If these agencies aren’t doing their job, then it’s our duty to let our elected representatives know about it and to demand corrective action. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

By the way, I think I’ve figured out why Special Agent Flaherty was smiling. Maybe he knew he was on a fool’s errand. Sending a federal agent to a reporter’s home after Christmas was just another episode of TSA Theater — and one the critics didn’t particularly like.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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