Saturday, July 17, 2004

U.S.: Terror in the skies?

Read Annie Jacobsen's account of an encounter that may have been a dry run for a terrorist attack. Here's an excerpt:

The take-off was uneventful.  But once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him.  When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag.  When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign.  When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.

Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth.  He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object.  Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.

For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing.  Not one of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their seats.

Watching all of this, my husband was now beyond anxious.  I decided to try to reassure my husband (and maybe myself) by walking to the back bathroom.  I knew the goateed-man I had exchanged friendly words with as we boarded the plane was seated only a few rows back, so  I thought I would say hello to the man to get some reassurance that everything was fine. As I stood up and turned around, I glanced in his direction and we made eye contact.  I threw out my friendliest remember-me-we-had-a-nice-exchange-just-a-short-time-ago smile. The man did not  smile back. His face did not move. In fact, the cold, defiant look he gave me sent shivers down my spine.
...
Finally, the captain announced that the plane was cleared for landing. It had been four hours since we left Detroit. The fasten seat belt light came on and I could see downtown Los Angeles. The flight attendants made one final sweep of the cabin and strapped themselves in for landing. I began to relax. Home was in sight.

Suddenly, seven of the men stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the front and back lavatories. One by one, they went into the two lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside. Right in front of us, two men stood up against the emergency exit door, waiting for the lavatory to become available. The men spoke in Arabic among themselves and to the man in the yellow shirt sitting nearby. One of the men took his camera into the lavatory. Another took his cell phone. Again, no one approached the men. Not one of the flight attendants asked them to sit down.  I watched as the man in the yellow shirt, still in his seat, reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small red book. He read a few pages, then put the book back inside his shirt.  He pulled the book out again, read a page or two more, and put it back.  He continued to do this several more times.

I looked around to see if any other passengers were watching. I immediately spotted a distraught couple seated two rows back. The woman was crying into the man's shoulder.  He was holding her hand.  I heard him say to her, You've got to calm down. Behind them sat the once pleasant-smiling, goatee-wearing man.  

I grabbed my son, I held my husband's hand and, despite the fact that I am not a particularly religious person, I prayed. The last man came out of the bathroom, and as he passed  the man in the yellow shirt he ran his forefinger across his neck and mouthed the word No. 

The plane landed. My husband and I gathered our bags and quickly, very quickly, walked up the jetway. As we exited the jetway and entered the airport, we saw many, many men in dark suits.  A few yards further out into the terminal, LAPD agents ran past us, heading for the gate.  I have since learned that the representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Federal Air Marshals (FAM), and the Transportation Security Association (TSA) met our plane as it landed.  Several men -- who I presume were the federal air marshals on board -- hurried off the plane and directed the 14 men over to the side.

Knowing what we knew, and seeing what we'd seen, my husband and I decided to talk to the authorities. For several hours my husband and I were interrogated by the FBI. We gave sworn statement after sworn statement.  We wrote down every detail of our account. The interrogators seemed especially interested in the McDonald's bag, so we repeated in detail what we knew about the McDonald's bag. A law enforcement official stood near us, holding 14 Syrian passports in his hand. We answered more questions. And finally we went home. 
President Bush is standing in the way of checks of Mid-Easterners on U.S. flights. Why blame Bush, you ask? The buck stops with him. Norm Mineta (D) seems to believe that because Japanese were imprisoned during WWII that Mid-Easterners and Muslim travelers ought to be protected from scrutiny when they fly. The Japanese in America were not trying to kill us. They did not rejoice and hand out sweets on 9/11. Therein lies the difference.

Yet, President Bush has allowed Norm Mineta to implement and enforce transportation policy that could cost American lives ... all for the sake of political correctness and a vain fantasy that today's Arabs are like the Japanese-ancestry Americans of an earlier generation.

American lives ought not to be put at risk or sacrificed so that Norm Mineta can feel good. If President Bush does not either replace Mineta or demand that Mineta's absurd policy be substituted for one that regards the threat of terrorism under which we live, should American lives be lost because of terrorists blowing up a plane in mid-air, the blame will be laid at the president's door, and rightly so.

If President Bush is serious about fighting terror, then he must be willing to do so at home as well as abroad.

H'tip to Instapundit.

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