Southers's admission that he was involved in a questionable use of law enforcement background data has been a source of concern among civil libertarians, who believe the TSA performs a delicate balancing act in tapping into passenger information to find terrorists while also protecting citizens' privacy. Southers first described the episode in his October affidavit, telling the Senate panel that two decades ago he asked a San Diego Police Department employee to access confidential criminal records about the boyfriend. Southers said he had been censured by superiors at the FBI. He described the incident as isolated and expressed regrets about it.
The committee approved his nomination Nov. 19. One day later, Southers wrote to Lieberman and Collins saying his first account was incorrect. After reviewing documents, he wrote, he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife's boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee, the letter said.
It is a violation of the federal Privacy Act to access such information without proper cause. The law says that "any person who knowingly and willfully requests or obtains any record concerning an individual from an agency under false pretenses shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000."
In his letter, Southers said he simply forgot the circumstances of the searches, which occurred in 1987 and 1988 after he grew worried about his wife and their son, who had begun living with the boyfriend. The letter said: "During a period of great personal turmoil, I made a serious error in judgment by using my official position with the FBI to resolve a personal problem." He did not specify the data system he accessed. "I am distressed by the inconsistencies between my recollection and the contemporaneous documents, but I assure you that the mistake was inadvertent, and that I have at all times taken full responsibility for what I know to have been a grave error in judgment," the letter said. "This incident was over twenty years ago, I was distraught and concerned about my young son, and never in my career since has there been any recurrence of this sort of conduct."