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

Up in the Air

Angie Smith, a Houston Press retail sales employee, got on the Continental flight with her boyfriend, all set to enjoy a fun time in Las Vegas. The August 13 trip was a reward for top salespeople with the paper.

Flight 197 from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport was on a huge Boeing 757. Passengers began filtering aboard. As she went to sit down, Smith (who did not want her real name used for this story) noticed a Middle Eastern-looking man sitting across the aisle from her. What caused her to study him was that although he was flipping through the pages of a magazine, he wasn't looking at them. Instead, he was scanning the plane.

Another man, with a shaved head and a pink Izod shirt, who also appeared to be Middle Eastern, came up and talked to him, and then sat about four rows up.

Four men arrived by their seats and asked the first man if there wasn't some mistake because he seemed to be in their seat.

Happens all the time when traveling by air -- a natural mix-up usually sorted out by each side pulling their tickets and comparing them to the overhead number-letter system.

But in this case, the passenger simply jumped up and moved to a seat in the next row back -- without looking at his ticket. Smith thought this was odd. She started wondering if he even had a seat.

Another clump of passengers came aboard and again a group approached the Middle Easterner, asking if he was perhaps in the wrong seat. This time he jumped up and stood in the aisle.

Smith was really starting to worry now. "We're on row 33. He's just standing there. I was starting to get a little panicked."

Eventually the man proceeded up the plane, settling down in the same row as his bald acquaintance.

Smith decided to talk with the flight attendants. She carefully kept her back to the row where the two men were sitting and explained about the seat-jumping and how the two men ended up sitting together.

"Maybe they're just gay," one attendant said.

The other one was more definite. "The FBI has a list, and there's no way a terrorist is going to get on board," she told Smith.

"We're all dead," Smith thought as she made her way back to her seat.

In her job, Smith is used to dealing with all kinds of people. She, like most Americans, is conscious of not wanting to appear politically incorrect, or of coming across as some kind of paranoid nutso.

Still, it did nothing to calm her nerves when, shortly after the plane departed and the pilot turned off the fasten-seat-belts sign, both Middle Eastern men got up and walked back to the restroom together.

One went inside while the other remained right outside. Within a few minutes, a line had formed. After about ten minutes, the people waiting got restless. "One woman said, 'What's going on?' and the friend outside shakes the door," says Smith.

"The bald guy comes out and the two go back to their seats together. The second one never went in the bathroom."

A little bit later the bald guy walks to the front of the plane, leans into one of the aisles and talks to someone, Smith says. Then another Middle Eastern-looking man walked back to the bathroom -- even though his seat was much closer to the restroom in the front of the plane.

Another Press sales employee and her husband were on the plane. Her husband, a former navy operations specialist, went to the bathroom and searched it after, he says, one of the original two men went back to the restroom within about 15 minutes of his first visit.

He opened up the compartments for the fire extinguisher, soap and tissues, checking to see if they contained anything out of the ordinary. He found nothing.

Back in Houston, Smith was telling this to a friend, when the friend said, "I just read something about all this."

That's how terrorists are supposed to be in this country putting together bombs on planes, she told Smith. They each bring a part and add it together in the restroom. That or they're doing dry runs.

As it turns out, the story she was referring to was a July 13 account written by Annie Jacobsen, a Los Angeles-based journalist who was returning home on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit, accompanied by her husband and four-year-old son.

Jacobsen's account appeared in the online magazine and was reprinted around the world ("translated into Chinese," she told the Press). As she described it, a group of 14 Middle Eastern men were aboard the flight. At first they pretended not to know one another, but as the flight proceeded they began talking with each other and it became apparent they were acquaintances.

One of the men took a full McDonald's bag with him into the restroom at the front of the economy section. When he came out, the bag was almost empty, Jacobsen said. As he made his way back to his seat, the man gave a thumbs-up sign to two of the men in mid-cabin, and by the time he was back in his seat, he no longer had the bag, she said.

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.

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.

Adams insists that they "have no information…that there is widespread probing of any of our commercial aircraft. However, we would be in the wrong business…to think that there's a possibility that it's not taking place."

Possibility versus probability: Congress didn't want to dance around this one, and launched an inquiry into "security gaps" aboard aircraft following Jacobsen's story. And untrained eyes or not, Jacobsen's account, backed up by other passengers and by the facts of the case, persuaded Congress that perhaps the Federal Air Marshals weren't quite as on top of things as they'd like to think.

Two men get on a plane and go to the bathroom together.

Let's all pray they're gay.


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