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FBI quiet on flight incident

| Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Strict airline security regulations make it impossible for the public to find out whether a key security screening tool failed to work this week when a US Airways flight from Philadelphia was turned around over concerns about several passengers.

Federal agencies refused to say whether the terrorist profiling system — Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System — flagged several men reported to be of Middle Eastern descent whose behavior on the flight alarmed fellow passengers and caused it to return to the airport. News reports said the men had purchased one-way tickets with cash.

The software checks information such as frequency of international travel, destinations and method of payment and also has access to the FBI's "Watch List." It has been criticized for unfairly targeting some ethnic groups, including Arab-Americans.

The Transportation Security Administration would not discuss details of the system, nor say whether the program flagged the individuals at the center of Sunday's incident aboard Flight 335 after it departed Philadelphia International Airport. US Airways also would not discuss the incident in detail.

"The flight returned to Philadelphia for security reasons," spokesman John Ellis said.

TSA spokesman Paul Turk cited "sensitive security" reasons for not discussing the incident. He did confirm the CAPPS system is used to screen all passengers.

However, there may not have been any reason for the CAPPS program, or security officials, to be concerned about the passengers who were pulled from the plane. After all, they were not charged with a crime.

FBI agents in Philadelphia used a bomb-sniffing dog to check the men and their luggage, but did not find a trace of an explosive device or substance, agency spokeswoman Linda Vizi said.

"We thoroughly checked their documentation and brought in dogs to check the luggage, and everything was negative," she said.

The FBI said the flight to Orlando, Fla., was turned around after some passengers and an air marshal aboard the Boeing 737 noticed "suspicious activity."

Witness accounts reported this week by The Associated Press and Reuters said one man was talking down toward his chest. The Reuters account said the men may have paid cash for one-way tickets to Orlando.

Neither the security agency nor the FBI would confirm the individuals' nationality or ethnic origin, nor would they say how their tickets were paid.

The legislative director for U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcomittee, was not aware of details about the incident but characterized as unusual the decision to turn the plane around mid-flight to Orlando. Gary Burns said it's possible the CAPPS system did flag the passengers and a more intense check was conducted that cleared them. Those checks are not public knowledge, and it is possible agencies like the FBI and TSA are not detailing their use.

"Just the fact that they meet a profile doesn't mean they can't fly — it just means they go through additional checks," Burns said.

The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., said the incident is a clear example of why federal security guidelines must be improved, so that a plane is not turned around mid-flight simply because someone is or looks Middle Eastern and is talking in a language foreign to most Americans.

"We fully agree that there needs to be procedures to handle things on airplanes, but to say these men are acting strangely without evidence is disturbing," said Laila Al Qatami, spokeswoman for the Arab-American group. "We have reports in our office from people who are Hispanic who say they are victims of hate crimes because they may look Middle Eastern."

CAPPS was implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration and initially used to screen only international passengers. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FAA started applying its use to all passengers.

The system changed hands in February when the newly formed TSA took control of aviation security functions nationwide. Turk said the TSA continues to apply CAPPS' use to all airline passengers.

Now, the TSA is seeking to make the system more advanced, developing a new program that will be called CAPPS II. The new software will increase the current abilities to evaluate the potential risk of a passenger, flight, airline or airport.

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