- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

What good is the $5 billion Transportation Security Administration if it can’t keep armed impostors from breezily bypassing security checkpoints and boarding planes?

According to U.S. State Department and federal court documents, a man from Brazil was able to con his way onto at least one domestic flight by posing as a U.S. State Department diplomatic security dignitary protection agent.

Like smooth-talking Frank Abagnale Jr. in the recent hit movie “Catch Me If You Can,” Marcello Benati used phony credentials to sidestep airline security checks. The Brazilian national’s shiny badge was emblazoned with the phrase “The United States of America: DSS — Special Agent.” His fake credentials bore the official seal of the United States and the job description “Advanced Team/Profiler Lead.”

In February, Mr. Benati identified himself to a United Airlines employee at Miami International Airport as a federal agent in a hurry to escort an “important person.” He was accompanied by an unknown male who flashed similar bogus law enforcement credentials. According to an investigative memo written by State Department Diplomatic Security Service special agent Richard Higbie, the United Airlines employee stated that both Mr. Benati and his companion were armed.

The United Airlines employee escorted Mr. Benati and his traveling partner to the head of the line at the ticketing desk, ahead of other customers. There, the two men received new tickets for an American Airlines flight, which they boarded without getting caught.

Mr. Benati was arrested in April, but only after he accidentally left his wallet — containing the fake badge and law enforcement credentials — at a clothing store in Dallas. “He’s been using this identity to fly around the country, avoiding the checkpoints going in and out of airports,” Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles said after the arrest. Federal prosecutors in Miami have charged Mr. Benati with falsely impersonating a federal officer and possessing false federal identification. (Immigration records also show he was an illegal visa overstayer who violated the terms of the fraud-ridden H-1 B program for foreign high-tech workers.) Mr. Benati’s companion remains unidentified and on the loose.

Transportation Security Administration spokesman Ed Martelle defended his hapless agency’s performance, telling the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, “To the best of our knowledge, [Mr. Benati] did not get through any of our checkpoints.” That may be technically, bureaucratically, spokesmanly true. But it misses the point. Mr. Benati didn’t have to go through any TSA checkpoints because he was apparently able to get around them.

Why bother paying 50,000 TSA screeners at more than 420 U.S. airports to stand around, confiscating scissors and baby nail clippers in the name of homeland security, when any computer geek with proficiency in Adobe Photoshop can sweet-talk his way on board a plane with help from a gullible airline employee?

How many toddlers and grandmas were stopped for random checks at the boarding gate while Mr. Benati and his pal whizzed right by?

Where was the Transportation Security Intelligence Service (there’s an oxymoron) to stop this faker and his partner from perpetrating brazen identity fraud?

And if one con artist such as Mr. Benati can game the system so easily, how can TSA claim to be defending us effectively against any more of Osama bin Laden’s airborne warriors?

Customs records show that Mr. Benati had flown into Miami at least one other time last fall from Brazil, which highlights troubling, terrorism-related loopholes. Terrorist operatives facing security crackdowns in the Middle East may undoubtedly find South America an easier point of departure to the United States. Miami International Airport is a major crossroads for flights from Latin America, where terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas have established lucrative bases — and where al Qaeda is suspected of gaining a foothold in the tri-border intersection of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The problem of impostors in the air is further compounded by the TSA’s disastrous acceptance of the matricula consular card, a Mexican government-issued photo ID that has been used by dozens of non-Mexican illegal aliens to board domestic flights, according to my law enforcement sources.

Last fall, Miami International Airport’s TSA workers made headlines when a snoozing security employee allowed two passengers to slip by metal detectors and luggage X-ray screening. It’s difficult to determine when the TSA stooges undermine homeland security more: when they’re asleep on the job — or when they’re awake.

Michelle Malkin is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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