Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Did Frischling Rip Off TSA Directive from Fellow Blogger?

Steven Frischling's biggest claim to fame as a blogger is posting a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) directive on his blog on Dec. 27, 2009, before it the agency released it. The directive, drafted a few days after the "underwear bomber" incident, contained new security procedures and rules. It made the news when TSA agents showed up at Frischling's house two days later trying to ascertain where he got it.

While we believe Frischling is much more famous for other things, he loves this particular story. He repeatedly references posting the directive as evidence of his street cred, and brags to the world that he "was the lead on the national news at one point." But something about this whole thing is "fishy" to us.

If you recall the story, there were actually two bloggers who had TSA agents show up at their doors on Dec. 29, 2009: Frischling in Connecticut and Christopher Elliot in Florida. Both Elliot and Frischling posted the directive and both said they received the document from an anonymous source at TSA. Let's take a look at this story from what we were able to piece together:

On Dec. 29, agents show up at Elliot's place first, and when they are gone he promptly calls Frischling around 6:30 p.m. to warn him. Frischling, according to his blog, hangs up with Elliot and looks out his window to see agents pulling up in front of his house. They come in with a subpoena demanding to know who at TSA had leaked the document.

According to Frischling's blog, the agents were there for more than two hours. So we can assume they left probably before 9 p.m.

Frischling later posts this blog describing the whole incident. He describes it in great detail, and says that when the agents left, they told him they would probably return the next morning. He then goes on to discuss the entire situation.

We never would have thought much about it at all if we hadn't stumbled upon this blog post from Jan. 2 from a website called Tnooz - "Did TSA ghost-write @FlyingWithFish tweet? Twitter coercion?"

The key issue here is that on Dec. 29, Frischling sent the following bizarre Tweet:

It appears it was sent at 7:05 p.m., which means the agents were there when he sent it. However, according to Dennis Schaal who wrote that article, Frischling later said that his Blackberry was set to Pacific Standard Time, meaning it was sent at 10:05 p.m.

Then, the very day the blog post above showed up, Frischling puts on Twitter (according to Schaal):

"The TSA Special Agents arrived before 7:00pm [on Dec. 29], left around 9:00pm, returned around 10:00pm for a while."

Huh? This was not described at all in his very detailed blog post in the early hours of Dec. 30. While there is no timestamp on that post, we can gauge when this blog was posted by when the first comments showed up - which was at 1:30 a.m. CST (3:30 a.m. EST). Why would they leave at 9 p.m., tell him they were coming back the next morning and then show up again an hour later to stay "for awhile" - this seems strange even for a strange experience. Did they miss Frischling's enjoyable company? Did they want to make sure he was tucked in? That doesn't make sense.

And if it really happened, why did he not mention it in his blog post? That is a very significant detail, to have government agents show up at your house not once but twice in the same night, and as late as 10 p.m. when they said they would be back the next day! For sure you would mention that, don't you think? And how very coincidental that he would suddenly recall this second government visit after criticism of the bizarre tweet.

We don't know the identity of the anonymous source who told Schaal that the agents "coerced" Frischling into sending that Tweet, but this whole thing stinks like rotten fish.

The burning question and the whole reason we are writing this post: Why would Frischling need to go on Twitter ask his "anonymous source" to please contact him? He would have the person's email address since he or she sent him the document. (We assume it was sent via email and not via carrier pigeon.) Therefore, all he had to do is hit REPLY and ask the person whatever it was he needed to know. Even if it was sent anonymously from a Yahoo or Hotmail email address, the address is still there.

The only way Frischling could say he did not have the email address is if he purposely deleted the email containing the document. And that notion is literally unbelievable. There is not a credible journalist on this planet who would delete the email address of an anonymous, whistle-blowing government source who had sent them a security directive. Even if, and this is a big if, he had deleted the email out of fear the government might take his computer, a sane person would have written it down somewhere, so at least he still had the address for later. There is no conceivable reason he would need to ask the person to contact him, except this was a show for the TSA and for everyone.

But we'll get back to this, because let's continue with the next day. They show up the next day to ask or demand access to his computer, even though they had no search warrant. It's unsure if they also showed up again at Christopher Elliot's house, but if not, we will assume they made similar demands on him at some point.

The facts are this: Steven Frischling, evidently a giant coward, promptly handed over his laptop to the government agents, immediately jeopardizing the identity of his anonymous source. Christopher Elliot, evidently a standup guy protecting his anonymous source and his own constitutional rights, refused to give his computer or any privileged information to the TSA agents.

Frischling, when rightly criticized for voluntarily giving up his laptop, claimed he was intimidated by the big scary government guys because his children were there. However, Elliot's children were also in his own house at the time. Additionally, we don't understand how this weak argument justifies him potentially revealing an anonymous source to the government. Did the agents have guns to the children's heads? Did Mulder, Scully and the Smoking Man show up and threaten to abduct the children for alien cloning? Like everything else Frischling says, this makes no sense.

Frischling posted on his blog that the computer did not contain the email address of the person who sent it to him. However, even if he had deleted the email or the document, there could still be traces of it on his computer that forensic experts could extract. Experts can often restore deleted files, so long as the hard drive has not completely been rewritten.

However, we assert that the real reason that Frischling did not have the email of the person who sent him the document is because nobody sent it to him. He saw it on Christopher Elliot's blog, promptly copied and pasted it into his own blog, and acted as though he also had an inside source. Only the person who sent it to Elliot would know he or she did not also send it to Frischling, and that source is obviously not going to reveal his or herself and get fired in order to expose a hack like Steven Frischling.

Another giveaway: the time the blogs were posted. We asked around the industry, and were told that indeed Elliot posted the directive first. But how long before Frischling posted it? Let's look at the available evidence. Again, the timestamps do not show up, so we have to look at when the first comments showed up. We can assume, that in both instances, the first people to comment were among the first people to read the respective blogs.

Elliot's blog post, "TSA Security Directive SD-1544-09-06 : The Fallout From NW253," received its first comment at 5:47 pm EST.

Frischling's post, "TSA Security Directive SD-1544-09-06 : The Fallout From NW253," received its first comment at 6:34 pm EST/5:34 pm CST. That's 47 minutes after Elliot's first comment.

How do we know which blog is set to Central Time and which blog set to Eastern Time? We checked it, depositing similar phony comments on both blogs within minutes of each other. Check out our test comments from "Mark" left shortly after 2:30 p.m. EST/1:30 p.m.:

On Elliot's blog:

And on Frischling's blog (he apparently couldn't read our sarcasm, as he approved the comment):

Notice that the time stamp is different - Frischling's blog is set to CST, most likely because BoardingArea.com is run out of Colorado. Elliot's is set to EST, one hour earlier than CST, which again makes sense as it's probably hosted by someone near him on the East Coast. (Feel free to test this yourself.)

OK, so we have some circumstantial evidence that Frischling's post appeared around an hour or so after Elliot's post. Maybe Elliot posted his right away and Frischling didn't. Maybe Frischling was in a meeting or something and didn't see the email right away. Maybe he was flying to 47 countries in 47 minutes. Whatever the delay, on the surface it seems feasible that the TSA source sent it to both bloggers and that's why they published it nearly at the same time.

Except there's one large snag in that theory. Check out what Elliot wrote in that blog post, before the text of the directive:

"Since the government has been unresponsive to my requests to clarify its new security measures, I thought it would be best to publish the security directive in its entirety."

This would indicate Elliot had the document for some time before he released it. Notice he refers to "requests," plural. We would guess that, before he gave up and posted it, he allowed the government at least all day if not a full 24 hours to finally get back to him with a comment.

In contrast, in Frischling's "Feds at My Door" post, this is how he described his own three-step professional process:

"I received it, I read it, I posted it."

Received it, read it, posted it. No step there for checking its authenticity. No mention of contacting TSA or anyone for a response. Received, read, posted.

If that were really the case, and the same anonymous source sent both of them the document, why did Frischling's blog post on the directive show up only after Elliot posted it? That really doesn't make sense, if what Frischling says is true and what Elliot says is true. Either Frischling is lying or Elliot is lying. (Or it's possible they are both telling the truth but only if Elliot gave the government 29 seconds to respond to him, which we doubt.)

One of them is not telling the truth here. Who should we believe? Let us review their respective credibility:

Christopher Elliot has been blogging since 1996 (yes, 1996). According to his website, he holds a degree in humanities from the University of California at Irvine, and a masters in journalism from U.C. Berkeley. He was a Fulbright scholar and completed seven internships, including at the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News and Reuters. He is a long-term contributor to many notable publications, and is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler. Christopher Elliot is a fairly common name, but we are going to go out on a limb and assume he has not been the target of multiple lawsuits for fraud. As far as we know, he does not forge references from former coworkers nor has he been accused of fabricating quotes. He does not brag about himself at every opportunity, and he does not bash his clients online. (If you have evidence to the contrary, feel free to contact us.)

On the other hand, Steven Frischling may possibly have a high school diploma or GED. He has no education in journalism or aviation. He was such as a disaster as a wedding photographer that he has been sued for fraud in multiple states. He apparently was so awful as a sports photographer that he needed to forge a positive reference from a former coworker. He has no long-term work references, and was fired from a blogging gig at KLM after three weeks. He is suspected of fabricating quotes from non-existent sources. He brags about himself at every opportunity, and he bashes his clients online.

So what do we think happened? Shortly after Elliot posted the directive, Frischling saw it. Jealous that Elliot had this great scoop and seeing an opportunity to claim some of that glory for himself, he quickly wrote his own intro, copied the directive from Elliot's blog and pasted into his own blog post. That is the only scenario that makes sense.

Unfortunately there is no proof that Frischling ripped off the directive from Elliot, but there is no proof he received it from any source either. We wish Elliot had buried a copyright trap in the form of a superfluous comma hidden in the text, but we would guess he is too ethical to modify the directive even in such an insignificant way.

But given the circumstantial evidence, including Frischling's odd tweet indicating he did not have the person's email address, the coincidental timing of the posts, but most of all Frischling's complete and total lack of ethics, are strongly suggestive that he did rip it off from Elliot.

And we wonder if Elliot thinks the same.


  1. of course he stole it

  2. Your blog paints a more damaging series each week.

  3. this guy is a joke, he's nowhere near Elliot's level. I can't believe TSA would send to both of them

  4. This blog is awesome. I've now bookmarked it! I can't wait to get a reference to it on Flyertalk.....

  5. What an awesome site! He's such a pompous ass.

  6. Keep up the excellent work. The blogging world needs more people like you. There is just too much crap out there getting confused with journalism and fishy people are getting famous based on thievery.

  7. My friend mentioned an app that she had found, next day "fish" did a post claiming he had found the app....

  8. Of course that lying piece of shit ripped it off!!! I'll never believe anyone at the TSA would email it to Chris Elliot AND Steven Frischling. No way.