Over the past week, there’s been no small amount of online uproar over the story of one woman’s account of what she felt was a ‘dry run’ for another terrorist attack. The article, Terror in the Skies, Again? (and its follow-up Part II), has been linked to on hundreds of websites, e-mailed from one person to another, and generally spreading nearly as fast as the latest Internet Explorer exploit.
I’d seen and read the article, of course, but after reading it, I made the decision not to mention it here. As I read Annie Jacobsen’s “terrifying account” of a flight wherein nothing happened, it felt to me like little more than hysterical and possibly racist paranoia. Over the week, while it was gratifying to see others who read the article as I did (in this MetaFilter discussion, for instance, or this article in Salon), not surprisingly, those voices didn’t get nearly as much press.
Now, though, enough furor has been raised over the article that according to Eric Leonard of KFI News, air marshalls that were on board the flight have found it necessary to step forward and give their own assessment of the situation. There’s apparently no permalink to the article (bad news site! no cookie!), so here’s a copy:
LOS ANGELES | July 22, 2004 — Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, “overreacted,” to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.
The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service.
Jacobsen, a self-described freelance writer, has published two stories about her experience at womenswallstreet.com, a business advice web site designed for women.
“The lady was overreacting,” said the source. “A flight attendant was told to tell the passenger to calm down; that there were air marshals on the plane.”
The middle eastern men were identified by federal agents as a group of touring musicians travelling to a concert date at a casino, said Air Marshals spokesman Dave Adams.
Jacobsen wrote she became alarmed when the men made frequent trips to the lavatory, repeatedly opened and closed the overhead luggage compartments, and appeared to be signaling each other.
“Initially it was brought to [the air marshals] attention by a passenger,” Adams said, adding the agents had been watching the men and chose to stay undercover.
Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said.
“In concert with the flight crew, the decision was made to keep [the men] under surveillance since no terrorist or criminal acts were being perpetrated aboard the aircraft; they didn’t interfere with the flight crew,” Adams said.
The air marshals did, however, check the bathrooms after the middle-eastern men had spent time inside, Adams said.
FBI agents met the plane when it landed in Los Angeles and the men were questioned, and Los Angeles field office spokeswoman Cathy Viray said it’s significant the alarm on the flight came from a passenger.
“We have to take all calls seriously, but the passenger was worried, not the flight crew or the federal air marshals,” she said. “The complaint did not stem from the flight crew.”
Several people were questioned, she said, but no one was detained.
Jacobsen’s husband Kevin told KFI NEWS he approached a man he thought was an air marshal after the flight had landed.
“You made me nervous,” Kevin said the air marshal told him.
“I was freaking out,” Kevin replied.
“We don’t freak out in situations like this,” the air marshal responded.
Federal agents later verified the musicians’ story.
“We followed up with the casino,” Adams said. A supervisor verified they were playing a concert. A second federal law enforcement source said the concert itself was monitored by an agent.
“We also went to the hotel, determined they had checked into the hotel,” Adams said. Each of the men were checked through a series of databases and watch-lists with negative results, he said.
The source said the air marshals on the flight were partially concerned Jacobsen’s actions could have been an effort by terrorists or attackers to create a disturbance on the plane to force the agents to identify themselves.
Air marshals’ only tactical advantage on a flight is their anonymity, the source said, and Jacobsen could have put the entire flight in danger.
“They have to be very cognizant of their surroundings,” spokesman Adams confirmed, “to make sure it isn’t a ruse to try and pull them out of their cover.”
KFI reporter Jessica Rosenthal contributed to this report.
Copyright 2004 KFI NEWS. All rights reserved.