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August 27, 2012

How not to repeat history

by: Mary F. Schiavo

On May 11, 2001, Steven Wallace, an American Airlines mechanic reported unsettling behavior he witnessed involving two Middle Eastern men. The two men were carrying pilot bags, taking pictures and capturing video of the airport security checkpoints at Logan International Airport. When Wallace confronted the men, they cursed at him and continued to a security checkpoint. Steven Wallace reported them to the security company contractors and the state troopers assigned to protect Logan International Airport, but they did nothing—did not look in the men’s bags, look at their tickets or identification, secure photos form surveillance cameras or even check their names. Four months later, one of these men, Mohammed Atta, hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center as part of the coordinated attacks on the United States of America.

Following this preventable tragedy, the airport security contractors were fired; airlines were no longer running security; and the TSA was formed. Federal employees were trained, under the supervision of law enforcement officials, to recognize and report suspicious activity, resulting in much publicized public irritation at the inconvenience of sometimes longer security lines and increased scrutiny and body scanning practices. One Florida Congressman is even screaming to return the important job of airport security to the security screeners of the lowest-bidder screening companies that airlines hire—which is what led us to 9/11/01.

The TSA has thwarted many attempted crimes, but they now have a documented case of saving a life in Florida. On July 5, 2012, two Miami TSA agents took notice of a young woman wearing a scarf over her face as she attempted to go through the security check at Miami International Airport (MIA). The agents noticed she was accompanied by two men and two women, appeared frightened, and upon closer inspection, saw that her face was bruised. Unbeknownst to the agents at the time, the young woman had been beaten, kidnapped, and forced to withdraw money from her bank and was being forced to board a flight bound for New York. The agents, using the skills taught after 9/11 to detect suspicious behavior, realized something was wrong. One of the agents approached the woman and asked her to please come with them, at which time the young woman pleaded for help getting away from the four people that had threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Other TSA officers arrested the four individuals, who have now been charged with an array of crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, false imprisonment, battery and theft.

The TSA agents not only saved that young woman’s life, but perhaps the lives of all those on board. The TSA should be applauded for its diligence. NBC Miami reported that the head of TSA security at MIA said that the behavioral analysis system –which when first initiated caused some to be concerned about their privacy –assisted in bringing this woman to safety. “In the course of their duty, they did what they were trained to do,” said Mark Hatfield, the agency’s director at MIA. “They saw stress, they saw fear, and it turned out that this woman was in really dire danger.”

Two instances of observed suspicious behavior with two very different outcomes, a difference made by not repeating the aviation security mistakes of the past---not yet anyway.