Houston Officer Demands Apology in Airport Case

A Houston police officer wants an apology from federal screeners at Hobby Airport who he says made him a scapegoat after a Jordanian with suspected bomb parts was allowed to board an aircraft.

Officer J.O. Reece was transferred to a desk job after he was blamed for allowing Mohamed Ahwar Bataineh, a Jordanian living legally in Houston, to board a Delta Air Lines flight for Atlanta on June 26.

After a three-month investigation, the department cleared Reece of wrongdoing. Reece blames the Transportation Security Administration and TSA supervisors for the complaint that was filed against him and the subsequent humiliation.

"I am very, very upset," Reece said. "I totally feel like I've been done an injustice." He also wants to know why the TSA officials he holds responsible for the incident were rewarded with a day off and a TSA pen.

"They were totally responsible for what happened at that checkpoint," Reece said. "These people clearly don't know what they are doing."

There will be no apology from the TSA. Spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said neither the TSA nor the supervisor at the checkpoint, Clarice Gaines, filed a complaint against Reece.

"Simply stated, we never accused him of wrongdoing," McCauley said.

Chad Hoffman, a police-union attorney representing Reece, said a federal agency passed information about the incident to police officials, which is tantamount to making a formal complaint. He did not know which federal agency informed police.

A TSA report obtained by the Houston Chronicle appears to blame Reece for the incident, which began when screeners at a checkpoint asked Bataineh whether he had a laptop computer in a computer bag.

Bataineh shook his head, but an X-ray machine operator detected a laptop and alarm clock with a nine-volt battery taped to it. They also said Bataineh was wearing shoes that they suspected had been "gutted out."

"The shoes had been tampered with and there were all the components of (a bomb) except the explosive itself," according to the report.

Instead of detaining Bataineh or calling the FBI as they could have and should have done according to security officials, a TSA official asked Reece to investigate.

Reece examined the shoes and found no reason for concern, then put the battery in the clock and found that it functioned properly, according to Hoffman.

Reece found no reason to detain Bataineh and allowed him to enter the boarding area over the protests of screeners, according to the report.

Reece argued with Gaines, who also was concerned that police computers were down and could not complete a background check on Bataineh.

The report blamed Reece, but police officials say their officers are not authorized to prevent people from boarding airliners.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green sided with police, saying the TSA should have stopped Bataineh from entering the boarding area.

Concern about the incident led the FBI to interview Bataineh in Atlanta, where he had traveled to begin a job with a trucking company. The FBI determined he was not a security threat.

The incident caused a shake-up in Houston airport security. McCauley says as a result, the procedures have been changed to allow screeners to call the FBI. She said the protocol before the incident said screeners should call local law enforcement.

That doesn't satisfy Reece, who says he was vilified on radio talk shows. "This is a direct attack on my character," he said. He is upset that screeners received rewards while he was blamed for their failure.

McCauley says that TSA screeners were given a day off and a pen as a reward because "they did follow protocol."

"The bottom line is, it's a tough call," McCauley said. "The protocol in place was followed by screeners."

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