- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Homeland Security Department reversed itself yesterday, announcing that all 14 Syrian musicians who exhibited bizarre, menacing behavior on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles last month were legally in the United States after all. DHS blames the confusion about the visa status on Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees.

The flip-flop by DHS is just the latest odd twist in a story that raises troubling questions about the ability of our immigration authorities and airline security apparatus to keep potentially dangerous people off passenger planes.

Let’s review what we know about the events that occurred aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 327 on June 29. The 14 men pretended to be strangers, but stood for nearly the entire flight in groups of two and three, and filed in and out of restrooms at regular intervals. They took cameras and cell phones to the restroom. When the pilot announced that the plane was about to land, seven of the Syrians jumped up in unison and went to the restroom. Upon returning to his seat, one mouthed the word “no” as he ran his finger across his throat. These are only a few examples of their disturbing behavior.

The pilot radioed for law enforcement assistance, and when the plane landed in Los Angeles, it was met by a team from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The 14 men were taken off the plane and questioned. The assembled lawmen concluded that the Syrians were harmless musicians, and, since their names did not appear on any terrorism watch list, they were released.

Since the story became public, there has been a campaign by some unnamed government officials and Internet bloggers to discredit Annie Jacobsen — a journalist and passenger who wrote about what occurred on the flight in WomensWallStreet.com — as hysterical and unreliable. Her critics point to DHS’ official position that it has no intelligence showing that terrorists are conducting surveillance of airline security procedures. One problem with this is that other passengers have given accounts first reported in this newspaper that corroborate Mrs. Jacobsen’s. Also, pilots and air marshals (the latter being DHS’ own employees) privately speak about groups of men engaging in similar behavior on other flights, in what look like dry runs for attacks. Also, on Feb. 8 the London Observer published a story quoting intelligence officials as stating that terrorists are practicing ways to smuggle explosive components onto planes so they can assemble bombs in midflight.

It stretches credulity to believe, as DHS contends, that terrorists aren’t carrying out surveillance of airliners. We dismiss these serious security concerns raised by Mrs. Jacobsen at our peril.

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