Report: Flight Scare Highlighted Homeland Data Sharing Problems

By Justin Rood

May 30, 2007 12:43pm

The Department of Homeland Security isn’t good at circulating information on suspicious incidents, according to a recently released report. "Key Departmental components were either not notified or not notified timely" of suspicious behavior on a 2004 flight. Roughly a dozen Middle Eastern men aroused concern among passengers and air marshals by rushing to the lavatories, arguing with flight attendants, lingering in the aisles and appearing "nervous and sweaty," concludes the report by the department’s Office of Inspector General. Agents from the FBI, the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) met Northwest Airlines flight 327 when it landed at Los Angeles International Airport on June 29, 2004. Federal agents interviewed three of the suspicious passengers as well as two other travelers who "insisted on giving statements," the report states. The suspicious travelers were members of a band scheduled to play at a California casino two days later. Database searches revealed one man had been involved in an earlier "suspicious incident," and some of the men’s visas had expired. Ultimately, the agents concluded the men did not pose a terrorist threat and released them. Despite that determination, media accounts pushed federal counterterrorist agencies into action, according to the report, which was completed March 2006 but released in largely unredacted form last week to the Washington Times newspaper, in response to a one-year-old Freedom of Information Act request. The incident was not reported to DHS’s vaunted 24-hour "nerve center," the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC), until it was reported in the Washington Times July 26, a month after the event occurred. White House officials brought the article to the center’s attention, the report says. What’s more, the FBI did not open a separate investigation into the matter until a passenger from the flight appeared on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country television show, hosted by former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough, according to the report. And at FAMS headquarters, officials queried more databases using the names of the suspicious passengers only after a detailed account of the suspicious behavior was published weeks after the incident in Womens Wall Street, an online publication. The efforts yielded little, the report finds."DHS and FBI investigations failed to determine any nexus to terrorism from the event." While the report does not criticize that conclusion, it faults aviation security officials for failing to tell the HSOC of the event immediately. TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe discounted a report by the Washington Times in which former air marshals claimed the incident was an effort by terrorists to "probe" U.S. aviation security.  The suspicious passengers "didn’t pose a threat," she said. "The air marshals performed appropriately." "It’s kind of hard to believe they were reading the same report," said Howe. "It in no way concluded this was a [terrorist] probe." Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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