Monday, April 24, 2006

The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general yesterday released a summary of its 22-month probe into Syrian nationals suspected of practicing to hijack a plane during a Detroit-to-Los Angeles flight, but its findings will remain classified.

Tamara Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the inspector’s general office, said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) invoked a classification called “sensitive security information” to protect nearly all of the 40-page report. She called the classification a TSA “invention.”

A seven-line summary of the report said the department needs to better coordinate information on suspicious passengers and that investigations could be compromised because both the Federal Air Marshal Service and the FBI have authority to investigate in-flight incidents.

“The government is using its secret red stamp and no one is left to protect the flying public,” said Annie Jacobsen, a passenger who wrote about her experience on the flight at and in a recently published book, “Terror in the Skies.”

The June 29 incident involved 13 Syrian nationals and one legal Syrian immigrant who frightened several passengers on Northwest Flight 327 as they consecutively filed in and out of restrooms carrying the same McDonald’s bag and stood during most of the flight.

Just before landing, seven of the men jumped up and went to the restrooms, and one man mouthed the word “no” as he ran his finger across his throat, passengers reported.

Homeland Security officials said the passengers were “just musicians,” who were playing a gig at a nearby resort, but numerous air marshals and pilots said it was a terrorist “probe,” or a dry run.

The Washington Times first reported the story in the summer of 2004 that flight crews and passengers on several flights were experiencing probes, which received widespread press attention and ignited congressional and inspector general investigations.

Passengers interviewed by the inspector general investigators now say that only two of the 14 band members shown in a photo of the previous gig were the same Syrians on Flight 327. Federal officials questioned only one of them when the plane landed.

“It was a classic bait and switch,” Mrs. Jacobsen said.

Investigators told passengers that the Syrians bought one-way tickets with cash — which is prohibited in visa agreements with citizens from terrorist-sponsored states — and confirmed that the Syrians were traveling under expired visas. Immigration officials failed to report to the airport as required; otherwise, the Syrians would have been detained.

Officials initially said they questioned the passengers for hours and then followed them to the casino where they were to perform. They now say the interviews took five minutes and that the Syrians were not followed, nor were they contacted for the investigation.

Investigators told Mrs. Jacobsen that there was no protocol in place to divert the plane to one of the 27 airports between Detroit and Los Angeles.

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