Report Confirms Terror Dry Run; Government Handling Hit

Inspector general report backs eyewitness accounts of suspicious behavior by 13 Middle Eastern men


According to the report, Flight 327 was "delayed for five minutes because one of the 13 suspicious passengers, who appeared not to understand English and walked with a limp, was seated in the emergency exit row. The flight attendant determined he was unable to operate the emergency procedures and delayed the flight while having him exchange seats."

"On the flight, 13 Middle Eastern men behaved in a suspicious manner that aroused the attention and concern of the flight attendants, passengers, air marshals and pilots," the report said. The men "walked in the aisle, appearing to count passengers," and "several men spent excessive time in the lavatories."

"One man rushed to the front of the plane appearing to head for the cockpit. At the last moment, he veered into the first-class lavatory, remaining in it for about 20 minutes," according to the report. One man carried a McDonald's bag into the lavatory, and "another man, upon returning from the lavatory, reeked strongly of what smelled like toilet bowl chemicals."

"Some men hand signaled each other. The passenger who entered the lavatory with the McDonald's bag made a thumbs-up signal to another man upon returning from the lavatory. Another man made a slashing motion across his throat, appearing to say 'No.' "

As the flight descended into Los Angeles, the report said, "four of the suspicious individuals stood up and made their way to the back of the plane," where "the individuals used the rear lavatory, and one of the men was doing stretching exercises/knee bends by the exit door."

Warning signs

The men were briefly detained, but only two were questioned.

"The Federal Air Marshal supervisor examined the visas, but did not notice the visas had expired on June 10, 2004," the report said. One of the air marshals assigned to the flight noticed the expiration, but "erroneously believed he was not legally entitled" to run a background check.

According to the report, the marshal's "primary concern, at that time, was not whether the visas expired, but to copy the visa pages so that Customs and Border Patrol could later run a database check on these individuals."

The FBI issued a warning in April 2004, just two months before the flight, that terrorists may be trying to enter the country under cultural or sports visas, the same visas carried by the 12 Syrian men who claimed to be musicians.

Robert Jamison, deputy administrator for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), defended the agency's action in its official response to the IG audit, which is included in the report.

"The reported suspicious activity was determined to be unfounded, and not a terrorist threat, and therefore did not merit an HSOC referral," he said.

The inspector general disagreed, and said TSA's actions once the matter became public proved that the agency thought otherwise.

The "HSOC clearly signaled a referral was merited by logging the Flight 327 matter into its database on July 26, 2004, after a July 22, 2004, Washington Times article, and an inquiry from the White House Homeland Security Council."

Mr. Jamison said, "Law-enforcement assessments made by the FAMS and FBI on June 29, 2004, were appropriate."

However, the inspector general said the FBI did not begin a full investigation until July 19, and air marshal officials were assigned to assist the FBI between July 22 and Aug. 4.

"It's unfortunate that the suspects were released from custody, but it's not surprising," said Jeffrey Denning, a former air marshal who quit the agency last month.

"The overt behavior of the 13 men on Flight 327 was indicative of a terrorist probe. It appeared rehearsed, coordinated and planned. It was menacing activity," Mr. Denning said.

Past behavior

A background check conducted weeks later in the FBI's Automated Case Support (ACS) system revealed that the promoter was involved in a similar probe on Jan. 28, 2004.

The unnamed promoter "was one of eight passengers acting suspiciously aboard Frontier Airlines Flight 577 from Houston through Denver, to San Francisco," the report said.

"Flight attendants reported all eight passengers kept trying to switch seats while boarding and during the flight, made repeated service requests in what the attendants described as an effort to keep the flight crew occupied. One took a cell phone into the front lavatory, remained in the lavatory for over 15 minutes, but did not appear to have the phone when leaving the lavatory," the report said.

We Recommend