Box cutters and taunting notes found on two Southwest planes

FBI questions Md. man, says incidents were meant to prove point on security

October 18, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - FBI officials are questioning a North Carolina college student from Montgomery County in connection with the discovery of box cutters, bleach and other potentially dangerous items on two Southwest Airlines planes in New Orleans and Houston, law enforcement officials said.

The officials said they did not believe that the items, which were found in bags in the planes' lavatories, were part of a terrorist threat. Rather, they said, the incident seemed intended to send a message. They said the items were found with taunting notes about the inadequacy of U.S. airport security two years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Nevertheless, the discovery of the box cutters in particular was a disturbing reminder of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who are thought to have used the devices to take control of four planes. Yesterday, the government ordered an immediate search of the nation's roughly 7,000 commercial airplanes.

The 20-year-old man, who was not identified and had not been charged, was questioned by FBI agents in Baltimore, officials said.

In a statement last night, the FBI said the man is "believed to be responsible for the matter." A federal court proceeding is expected to be conducted Monday in Baltimore.

Because the man was known to have flown out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport at least once, law enforcement sources said the airport was being reviewed for possible security breaches. A third Southwest plane, which the man was believed to have boarded recently, was searched by federal agents yesterday after it landed at BWI, the sources said.

It was not known whether the suspicious items, which also included matches and clay, went through security checkpoints. At the least, their discovery represented a blow to the perception of improved airline security. It led to calls from aviation analysts to further strengthen safety measures and close any holes in the system that could allow dangerous items onto planes.

However, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said: "I think it's safe to fly. There's no imminent threat."

"To assure the safety of the flying public," Mueller said, the searches are "being done in an excess of caution to make certain that we've covered all the bases."

Employees of Southwest, the dominant carrier at BWI, found the bags Thursday night in the planes' lavatories while conducting routine maintenance inspections.

One bag was found on a plane in Houston that had arrived from Austin, Texas. The other was discovered on a plane during a layover in New Orleans on a San Diego-bound flight from Orlando.

The clay, officials said, could have been an attempt to mimic explosives because it is often used to wrap them or adhere them to different surfaces.

Southwest officials notified the Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, which then ordered thorough searches of all commercial jets in the United States. Officials said the searches did not cause any delays in air travel.

Southwest also inspected its fleet of 385 aircraft but found no other suspicious items.

"Airlines routinely conduct searches" of their planes, said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. "But we asked them to conduct an even more comprehensive search into hidden areas and compartments and other difficult-to-see areas."

Law enforcement officials said they focused their inquiry on passengers and on people who would have had regular access to the two planes - maintenance workers, cleaning personnel, baggage handlers, food service employees and airline crew members - before deciding to question the 20-year-old student.

A report on CNN quoted a TSA official as saying that the man was tracked down, in part, through an e-mail sent to the TSA.

Authorities said the man is staying at his parents' home in Maryland. They did not specify its location.

Officials said the motive did not appear to be a desire to spread fear, as is often the case with bomb threats, but rather to issue a warning about airport security.

Airline security specialists said the incident proved that the TSA and other government agencies lack reliable means to keep dangerous items off aircraft.

Charles Slepian, an airplane security analyst and chief executive officer of the New York-based Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, said it was "ridiculous" that passengers must endure time-consuming security lines, body searches and baggage checks, only to find out that the same items used in the September 2001 terror attacks could still wind up on airplanes.

"This underscores that we have accomplished very little," Slepian said.

The government, he said, has failed to close a dangerous loophole that gives airport workers access to aircraft without proper screening.

"There are literally tens of thousands of people who work at the airports or on the airplanes every day that are not checked," Slepian said. "Not only are they not being background-checked, but nobody is screening them as they get on the planes."

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