CHICAGO (AP) Federal transportation officials, shaken by what they described as a major security breach, began an investigation into how a man carrying seven knives, a stun gun and tear gas got through an airport checkpoint.
Subash Gurung, a 27-year-old Nepalese citizen in the country on an expired student visa, was held without bond pending a hearing Thursday on a federal felony charge of attempting to board a jetliner with weapons at O’Hare International Airport.
“The O’Hare failure was a case of dramatic dimensions,” Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta told reporters on Monday.
Security employees at the checkpoint Saturday night did confiscate two folding knives that Mr. Gurung told them were in his pocket. But they failed to notice seven other knives, a stun gun and tear gas in his carry-on luggage. They were discovered by United Airlines workers who made a hand search of his luggage at the gate.
Federal law enforcement officials said there was no indication Mr. Gurung was involved in terrorism, and in a statement the FBI said reports that Mr. Gurung shared an address with terrorist suspects were not accurate. Law enforcement officials said Mr. Gurung told them he mistakenly packed the knives in a plastic bag rather than his luggage before leaving for the airport.
“The investigation does not seem to reveal any illicit, suspicious or nefarious intent about his trip to Omaha,” said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.
The company that operates the security checkpoints for United at O’Hare, Atlanta-based Argenbright Security Inc., said eight employees including one supervisor had been suspended from duty pending an internal company investigation.
Company spokesman Brian Lott said they would be fired only if the investigation showed that “there was wrongdoing.”
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department announced an audit of screeners employed by Argenbright, which operates at 14 airports.
The company admitted last month it failed to verify employees’ backgrounds even after being penalized $1.6 million and put on probation last year for hiring people with criminal records to staff security checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport.
Chicago police charged Mr. Gurung with two misdemeanors and released him on bond early Sunday. The FBI rearrested him on the federal charge later Sunday when he returned to O’Hare to retrieve his luggage.
The luggage that came back from Omaha contained two more knives, one of them with a seven-inch blade, the FBI said.
Mr. Gurung told WLS-TV in Chicago that he collects knives, and that the stun gun was for protection.
“I was living there in Chicago, and I don’t have any friends at the time,” he said. “Two years I was completely alone there, totally insecure and lonely there.”
In court, Mr. Gurung’s lawyer, Piyush Chandra, declined to answer questions from reporters.
Lawmakers seized on the incident as ammunition in the fight over whether the job of securing the nation’s airports should be federalized, as Democrats would prefer, or stay in private hands, as President Bush wants.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said that if they were federal workers it would be impossible to fire them, even if they were guilty of a security breach, because they would have job protection.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, said the security system would never be as efficient as it should be unless those running it were federal employees “like the Customs Service, like the FBI.”