Security flaws confirmed on Flight 327

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A newly released inspector general report (PDF) backs eyewitness accounts of suspicious behavior by 13 Middle Eastern men on a Northwest Airlines flight in 2004 and reveals several missteps by government officials, including failure to file an incident report until a month after the matter became public.

According to the Homeland Security report, the “suspicious passengers,” 12 Syrians and their Lebanese-born promoter, were traveling on Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on expired visas. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extended the visas one week after the June 29, 2004, incident.

The report also says that a background check in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, which was performed June 18 as part of a visa-extension application, produced “positive hits” for past criminal records or suspicious behavior for eight of the 12 Syrians, who were traveling in the U.S. as a musical group.

In addition, the band’s promoter was listed in a separate FBI database on case investigations for acting suspiciously aboard a flight months earlier. He was detained a third time in September on a return trip to the U.S. from Istanbul, the details of which were redacted.

The inspector general criticized the Homeland Security officials for not reporting the incident to the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC), which serves as the nation’s nerve center for information sharing and domestic incident management.

The report comes three years after the incident, which was not officially acknowledged until a month later, after The Washington Times reported passenger and marshal complaints that the incident resembled a dry run for a terrorist attack. After reviewing the report, air marshals say it confirms their earlier suspicions.

Official denial

An air marshal who told The Washington Times that he has been involved personally in terror probes that were ignored by federal security managers, called such behavior typical.

“Agency management was not only covering up numerous probes and dry-run encounters from Congress and other federal law-enforcement agencies, it was also hiding these incidents from their own flying air marshals,” said P. Jeffrey Black, an air marshal stationed in Las Vegas.

Homeland Security officials initially denied that the complaints and blamed passengers who reported the incident to the press as behaving hysterically. However, the inspector general report shows that air marshals had the group of men under surveillance before they boarded the plane.

“Prior to boarding, one of the air marshals noticed what he later characterized as ‘unusual behavior’ by about six Middle Eastern males, who arrived at the gate together, then separated, and acted as if they did not know each other,” the report said.

“According to the air marshals, these men were sweaty, appeared nervous and arrived after the boarding announcement. The air marshals made eye contact with one another to ensure they were aware of this behavior,” the report said.

The inspector’s general two-year investigation was originally released in April 2006 but was then wholly redacted except for two sentences. The re-release stems from a Freedom of Information request by The Washington Times on April 25, 2006, which was answered Friday.

Portions of the report remain redacted. However, current and former air marshals who reviewed a copy provided by The Times say the activities of the men details a dry run for a terrorist attack.

“This report is evidence of Homeland Security executives attempting to downplay and cover up an unmistakable dry run that forced flight attendants to reveal the air marshals and compel the pilots to open the flight deck door,” said Robert MacLean, a former air marshal who was fired last year for revealing that the service planned to cut back on protection for long-distance flights to save money.

Suspicious behavior

According to the report, Flight 327 was “delayed for five minutes because one of the 13 suspicious passengers, who appeared not to understand English and walked with a limp, was seated in the emergency exit row. The flight attendant determined he was unable to operate the emergency procedures and delayed the flight while having him exchange seats.”

“On the flight, 13 Middle Eastern men behaved in a suspicious manner that aroused the attention and concern of the flight attendants, passengers, air marshals and pilots,” the report said. The men “walked in the aisle, appearing to count passengers,” and “several men spent excessive time in the lavatories.”

“One man rushed to the front of the plane appearing to head for the cockpit. At the last moment, he veered into the first-class lavatory, remaining in it for about 20 minutes,” according to the report. One man carried a McDonald’s bag into the lavatory, and “another man, upon returning from the lavatory, reeked strongly of what smelled like toilet bowl chemicals.”

“Some men hand signaled each other. The passenger who entered the lavatory with the McDonald’s bag made a thumbs-up signal to another man upon returning from the lavatory. Another man made a slashing motion across his throat, appearing to say ‘No.’ ”

As the flight descended into Los Angeles, the report said, “four of the suspicious individuals stood up and made their way to the back of the plan,” where “the individuals used the rear lavatory, and one of the men was doing stretching exercises/knee bends by the exit door.”

Warning signs

The men were briefly detained, but only two were questioned.

“The Federal Air Marshal supervisor examined the visas, but did not notice the visas had expired on June 10, 2004,” the report said. One of the air marshals assigned to the flight noticed the expiration, but “erroneously believed he was not legally entitled” to run a background check.

According to the report, the marshal’s “primary concern, at that time, was not whether the visas expired, but to copy the visa pages so that Customs and Border Patrol could later run a database check on these individuals.”

The FBI issued a warning in April 2004, just two months before the flight, that terrorists may be trying to enter the country under cultural or sports visas, the same visas carried by the 12 Syrian men who claimed to be musicians.

Robert Jamison, deputy administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, defended the agency’s action in its official response to the IG audit, which is included in the report.

“The reported suspicious activity was determined to be unfounded, and not a terrorist threat, and therefore did not merit an HSOC referral,” he said.

The inspector general disagreed, and said TSA’s actions once the matter became public proved that the agency thought otherwise.

The “HSOC clearly signaled a referral was merited by logging the Flight 327 matter into its database on July 26, 2004, following a July 22, 2004, Washington Times article, and an inquiry from the White House Homeland Security Council.”

Mr. Jamison said, “Law-enforcement assessments made by the FAMS and FBI on June 29, 2004, were appropriate.”

However, the inspector general said the FBI did not begin a full investigation until July 19, and air marshal officials were assigned to assist the FBI between July 22 and Aug. 4.

“It’s unfortunate that the suspects were released from custody, but it’s not surprising,” said Jeffrey Denning, a former air marshal who quit the agency last month.

“The overt behavior of the 13 men on Flight 327 was indicative of a terrorist probe. It appeared rehearsed, coordinated and planned. It was menacing activity,” Mr. Denning said.

Past behavior

A background check conducted weeks later in the FBI’s Automated Case Support (ACS) system revealed that the promoter was involved in a similar probe on Jan. 28, 2004.

The unnamed promoter “was one of eight passengers acting suspiciously aboard Frontier Airlines Flight 577 from Houston through Denver, to San Francisco,” the report said.

“Flight attendants reported all eight passengers kept trying to switch seats while boarding and during the flight, made repeated service requests in what the attendants described as an effort to keep the flight crew occupied. One took a cell phone into the front lavatory, remained in the lavatory for over 15 minutes, but did not appear to have the phone when leaving the lavatory,” the report said.

The incident followed a series of breaches of airline security in December and January, when the FBI issued a memo warning that suicide terrorists were plotting to hijack trans-Atlantic planes by smuggling “ready-to-build” bomb kits past airport security to be assembled in aircraft bathrooms.

“Terrorist operatives are more confident that they can successfully smuggle [bomb] components, rather than fully assembled bombs past airport security,” the memo said. “It is conceivable terrorists may plan to use this private area to construct [bombs] in order to facilitate access to the cockpit, or position themselves in front of the passengers.”

Electronic devices, such as cell phones, can be used to detonate explosives.

‘Defenseless’ flights

“What is disturbing to us as pilots is that there are now a number of incidents like this taking place across our industry and the vast majority of our flights are still defenseless,” said Captain David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

“If I were a member of Congress, I’d be asking some hard questions about why such a small percentage of flights have armed pilots or air marshals aboard, while the TSA whistles past the graveyard, asking us to believe none of this is related to terrorism,” Mr. Mackett said.

The audit was initiated “because of media reports concerning actions taken by departmental personnel in response to events on Flight 327” and “to determine the various systems for recording and reporting suspicious passengers and activities.”

The report sought to “determine the specific circumstances relating to Flight 327, including the department’s handling of the suspicious passengers after the plane landed.”

The inspector general made three recommendations, with part of one being redacted.

One recommended that the marshal service “develop or acquire technology to permit effective and timely in-flight communication,” a capability that air marshals say they still lack despite a $15 million congressional appropriation to develop the technology.

“When handling suspicious passengers and activities aboard commercial aircraft,” the department was directed to establish guidelines to clarify agency roles and responsibilities and share information. The inspector general called the follow-up action “inadequate.”

The final recommendation was to develop and execute a memorandum of understanding with the FBI, which the Federal Air Marshal Service said was unneeded.

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