Up in the Air

Was this the punch line to a bad racist, homophobic joke or a dry run for a terrorist bombing?

Another man took out something from his carry-on bag and went to the back of the plane and for the next hour, these men congregated in groups of two or three back there. This was on a four-hour flight. Several of the men went into the restroom, one right after the other.

Jacobsen's husband talked to the flight attendants, who assured him that they were already on alert. Just as the plane was cleared for landing, seven of the men stood up in unison, according to Jacobsen, and went to the front and back restrooms, one taking his camera, another his mobile phone. By this point passengers were alarmed and one female passenger was sobbing in her seat, Jacobsen said.

The plane was met by an assortment of local and national security forces including LAPD, the FBI, Federal Air Marshals supervisors and the Transportation Security Administration.

The McDonald's bag went into the airplane restroom full and came out empty.
Al Cameron
The McDonald's bag went into the airplane restroom full and came out empty.

It was determined that the men, all traveling on one-way tickets, were musicians hired to play at a casino, and they were released. For Jacobsen this wasn't enough. As she said in her article: "If 19 terrorists can learn to fly aircraft into buildings, couldn't 14 terrorists learn to play instruments?"

Bolstered by this account so similar to her own, Smith decided to get in touch with our government. And she found a wide range of levels of interest in what she had to say.

Based upon the flight attendants' reaction, Smith didn't think Continental gave a flip, so she called the Transportation Security Administration. She briefly outlined what had happened, and she says she was told "a safety analyst would call me back if they deemed it necessary." She wondered how they could make that determination based on the few sketchy details she'd given them, but decided to wait.

Hearing nothing after a week, she sent an e-mail. The agency e-mailed back an automatic response that someone would be contacting her within 24 hours. No one ever did.

She then contacted a homeland security agency out of Austin. Ten minutes after she sent her e-mail, she had a phone call from Austin. She got to tell her story and was told that a local police agent would be contacting her.

This, in fact, happened. A Houston police officer with the special crimes unit called her and tracked through her story again. "He said what I was saying was very, very familiar," Smith says. "He said once he got together some head shots, if I wouldn't mind looking at them…He'd call me back."

That was about a month ago.

Jacobsen's report sparked other coverage of Flight 327 as well as a firestorm of debate over whether this was racial profiling or prudence. On July 22, Audrey Hudson, writing in The Washington Times, quoted unnamed pilots and air marshals saying that "Middle Eastern men are staking out airports, probing security measures and conducting test runs aboard airplanes for a terrorist attack."

The story said a January FBI memo talked about terrorists' plans to hijack planes by smuggling bomb kits past security and then building them in the bathrooms.

Air marshals did check out the bathrooms several times during Flight 327, as confirmed by David Adams, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS). They found nothing.

An incident aboard an American Airlines flight from San Juan to New York City last February had many of the same ingredients: men who pretended not to know one another (this time six of them) but who apparently did, and who congregated in the bathroom area making trips in and out of the restroom.

According to the Washington Times article, unnamed pilots said they know they are being "probed" by terrorists and that background checks are run on passengers when they begin engaging in suspicious activity during a flight.

Federal Air Marshal spokesman Adams says Smith did exactly the right thing. "She should report it to flight attendants. Then the flight attendants need to evaluate the information." If a passenger still has concerns, he should report them to the TSA at the airport or to local police, Adams says. "We encourage people to report any type of suspicious activity. In fact, the sooner the information is provided to authorities, the better."

But just saying that's the right thing to do doesn't mean much of anything if, as in Smith's case, the agencies don't appear to be listening. Smith's report was not taken in depth until she put herself out over and over again to try to talk to someone in authority -- to, as she put it, "just get it down on paper somewhere."

Annie Jacobsen laughs when told of David Adams's advice on reporting possible terrorist activity. "Dave Adams is the guy who told me I had untrained civilian eyes." And, in fact, when talking with the Press, Adams used that same phrase to explain that these "untrained eyes" may not understand the difference between actions that are a little out of the norm and those that are dangerous.

In the case of the Middle Eastern men aboard Flight 327, Adams says: "They didn't do anything illegal. They didn't do anything that was disruptive for the safety of the aircraft. They didn't interfere with the flight crews." He says the wise law enforcement response was to interview them after the flight and determine what they'd been doing.

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