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Document drop: OIG report on the handling of Flight 327

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By Michelle Malkin  •  May 29, 2007 06:02 AM

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Update: New WashTimes article on the report here.

This weekend, dogged Washington Times reporter Audrey Hudson previewed a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s report on the handling–and mishandling–of Flight 327. Longtime readers will remember this incident as an airline security object lesson on the need for passengers to say something when they see something. Thirteen Middle Eastern men aroused the suspicion of federal air marshals, flight crew, and passengers with disruptive, red-flag behavior at takeoff and landing. Freelance writer Annie Jacobsen was on the flight in June 2004 and bravely blew the whistle on security lapses and bureaucratic incompetence.

Now, the redacted, 51-page OIG report is online in PDF form. Jacobsen has posted it at her blog, Aviation Nation. POGO also obtained the report through a FOIA request and has also posted the report here. More on the report in a moment.

For those who aren’t familiar with Flight 327 or who have forgotten the details, Jacobsen wrote a book about her experience and continued to investigate the case and related reports of terrorist dry runs at home and abroad. She did all this despite ridicule, derision, and accusations of bigotry. Here’s a reminder of what I wrote about the case on July 24, 2004:

Following the lead of anonymous air marshals (see Eric Leonard’s KFI news story), some in the blogosphere are piling on Annie Jacobsen. One blogger calls her a “sniveling little twit.” Kevin Drum pooh-poohs “Panic in the Skies.” Armed Liberal advises Annie to take a “chill pill.” And Commissar at Politburo Diktat writes: “We are freaking out. Panicking. Overreacting. Getting jumpy. For Chrissakes, GET A GRIP, comrades. We (I mean Ms. Jacobsen) are, by the words of our federal air security officials, creating a danger in the air.”

I respectfully take issue with this characterization. Let’s remember what exactly Annie and Kevin Jacobsen did on their flight. By one unnamed marshal’s own words: “Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said.”

Who’s freaking out? The unnamed marshals who spoke to KFI are popping veins over the Jacobsens for having merely discussed their concerns with the flight crew and “gestured towards the men.” The couple didn’t jump up and scream “We are going to die!” They didn’t faint or have heart attacks. And they didn’t confront the 14 Syrians while they all stood up before landing, went to the bathroom, and congregated in the aisles in violation of security regulations. (No one confronted them, for crying out loud. That is the problem.)

The Jacobsens didn’t even muster up the courage to say meekly to the Syrians, “Hey, could you please sit down. You are making me nervous.” And they didn’t blab to other passengers about their fears.

The Jacobsens talked to the flight attendants and they kept to themselves. In fact, in their MSNBC interview, Kevin Jacobsen said he sat quietly with his wife and son during the landing and resignedly wrote about his concerns in his journal. Out-of-control menaces in the air? Come on.

The message that the alarmed and panicked marshals are sending out is that if and when we view suspicious behavior, we should all just sit tight in our seats, shut up, and do nothing until it’s too damned late lest we possibly risk blowing their cover.

Meanwhile, Tom Ridge and Norm Mineta ask us all to be vigilant, buy our duct tape, hand over our nail clippers and knitting needles, keep our lips sealed, and relinquish complete control and responsibility for homeland defense–and self-defense–to The Professionals.

Two words: Hell, no.

Jacobsen was a citizen John Doe before the John Doe movement had a name. Here’s what she wrote in April:

I am John Doe, in spirit, and I’m also John Doe in reality. I am Annie Jacobsen and three years ago, I saw something on an airplane and I said something about it. I wasn’t sued — but a whole lot of other things happened instead.

What I saw on Northwest Flight 327 was a group of Syrian men act as though they were going to hijack the plane. The men blocked the aircraft aisles, knocked over a passenger and spent so much time in the aircraft bathrooms that one Syrian emerged covered in toilet chemicals. As the flight was about to land, seven of the men stood in the aisle and used the toilets while the leader read from a small red book. One of the men then made a slashing motion across his throat and mouthed the word, ‘no.’

What I saw on that Detroit-to-Los Angeles flight was so alarming it never occurred to me to censor myself when it came to speaking out about what happened on the flight. It never occurred to me to worry about getting sued. First I spoke with federal agents for two hours, under oath, detailing what I saw. Later, after I learned that the government botched the investigation of the Syrians and then tried to cover their mistakes, I spoke up about that. For three years now, I’ve spoken up about what I saw as a guest on more than 400 radio and television programs. I’ve written 28 articles on the subject as well as a book. I’m so glad I did.

Federal counterterrorism agents have told me that the Syrians on the flight I was on were practicing how to build a bomb in the aircraft toilet — that the flight I was on was something known in counterterrorism circles as a “dry run.” Other federal agents have told me it was more likely “the real deal called off.” But that information came to me much later. That information came long after WomensWallStreet.com published my original 3,000-word article in which I describe exactly what I saw.

Any reasonable person would have done what I did; others on the flight went on television and described the terror resulting from what they saw on Flight 327, too. Eventually, the White House asked the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, to investigate exactly what happened on the flight. The investigation, called Review of the Department’s Handling of Suspicious Passengers Aboard Northwest Flight 327, took 22 months to complete (I was interviewed for the investigation). The review is a textbook case of why reporting suspicious behavior must be a citizen’s protected right.

Indeed, it is. If not for Annie Jacobsen, who was backed up by flight crew members and who emboldened other passengers on the flight to speak out, the OIG report would not have forced the feds to address fundamental flaws in airline security. If the Left weren’t stuck in 9/10 mode and so bent on demonizing Jacobsen, it would be heralding the OIG report as evidence of the Bush administration’s homeland defense ineptitude.

Here are excerpts from the report, but go to Jacobsen’s site and read the whole thing.

The OIG narrative of on-board activity summarizes the suspicious behavior:

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The report also corroborates WNBC investigative reporter Scott Weinberger’s scoop that the Syrians were here on expired visas and corroborates the Dallas Morning News’s finding that the feds had not bothered to check their visas against immigration databases on the day of the incident. We also learn that the Syrian band promoter, whom Clint Taylor first identified as Nour Mehana correction: Elie Harfouche, had been involved “in similar suspicious behavior” on another flight:

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Jacobsen’s investigative work and the work of those who followed up and took her seriously resulted in the OIG demanding that the Transportation Security Administration, Federal Air Marshals Service, and FBI address serious gaps in communication, coordination, and basic database searches:

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The ball is now in the homeland security agencies’ court:

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For its part, here’s how TSA rationalized its failure to report the Flight 327 incident to the Homeland Security Operations Center, which was created after 9/11 to “serve as the nation’s nerve center for information sharing and domestic incident management:”

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So top brass at FAMS, the FBI, and TSA all wanted to downplay the incident and keep it out of the homeland security database. But HSOC believed the case warranted reporting after an inquiry from the White House Security Council and coverage by the Washington Times–all prompted by citizen whistleblower Annie Jacobsen’s eyewitness account and investigative research.

Several questions remain: What was in that FBI ACS report about Nour Mehana’s [correction:] Elie Harfouche’s previous suspicious behavior? Was that a test run or misinterpretation? The OIG report does not say. Because of the heavy redaction, it is also unclear whether Flight 327 was a jihadi test run. What is clear is that some federal agency officials have a bad habit of denying the obvious. What is also clear from the OIG report is that the feds remain woefully underprepared to handle jihadi test runs–let alone the real thing.

Thanks to Annie Jacobsen, we have been put on alert again: Homeland security begins not with the White House or behemoth bureaucracies. It begins with you.

Never forget.

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