Box-cutter `sting' has admirers on Capitol Hill

Some in Congress think TSA should hire offender

October 22, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Nathaniel T. Heatwole, the 20-year-old Maryland man who is accused of smuggling box cutters and other banned items onto commercial jets, might be in trouble with federal homeland security authorities. But he seems to have won a few allies on Capitol Hill.

Calling Heatwole "a well-intentioned college student," Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Select Homeland Security Committee, suggested that rather than sending him to jail, the Transportation Security Agency should hire him.

"As a punishment for breaking the law, this college student should be sentenced to working 20 hours a week for the TSA," Markey said.

Harsh criticism

Eager to call attention to what they say are missteps by the Bush administration, senior House Democrats harshly criticized Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and the TSA yesterday for failing to find the items after Heatwole alerted them by e-mail to his actions, which he has since called part of "an act of civil disobedience."

But as for the accused, who is facing a federal felony charge of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon aboard an airliner, the Democrats said Heatwole did the government a favor and should be treated accordingly.

"Maybe he should do some community service," suggested Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who said she does not think Heatwole should face criminal prosecution or be sent to jail. "I don't see any criminal intent involved here."

Pelosi said Heatwole "has a lot to teach the TSA about security at the airport."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, called Heatwole's a "relatively benign action."

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said Heatwole will not be receiving any job offers from the agency.

"When you have individuals like this gentleman or other individuals who feel that they need to be testing the system, we would say, `You don't know what you're doing,'" Rhatigan said. "They're not helping."

Leave it to the pros

The agency has professionals with military and counter-terrorism training who conduct routine "stings" of the type Heatwole was apparently trying to accomplish, Rhatigan said, but private citizens are not invited to participate.

TSA has beefed up its e-mail screening to ensure that warnings like his will be heeded in the future, Rhatigan said.

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