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The Feds’ Post–9/11 Airport-Worker Purge

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In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the federal government feared that people would lose faith in the government’s promise to protect them. The feds had dismally failed to stop the 19 hijackers who took down four planes and sowed panic from coast to coast. So the government did what it does best: Round up the usual suspects.

Starting in late 2001, the government carried out a series of mass arrests of airport workers. “Operation Tarmac” and similarly named crackdowns spawned press conferences around the nation at which federal attorneys proudly announced roundups of Hispanic immigrants who were portrayed as would-be terrorists. More than a thousand airport employees were arrested and indicted nationwide.

Salt Lake City was the first airport hit by federal sweeps. Sixty-nine people were indicted on December 11, 2001, for false statements on employment applications or bogus Social Security numbers. Though U.S. Attorney Paul Warner declared that “there is no evidence that anyone indicted as part of Operation Safe Travel has attempted any kind of terrorist activity at the airport,” he still characterized the crackdown as a “joint anti-terrorism effort.”

However, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson denounced the investigation as “grandstanding” and complained, “At the end of the investigation, state and federal officers arrested and imprisoned dozens of workers. These arrests left many families in turmoil, with children waiting at home for their parents to return from work.”

Authorities were chagrined at the negative publicity over the three-day lockup of a food-service worker who was also a breast-feeding mother. While federal officials portrayed the crackdown as a triumph, the Salt Lake Tribune later reported that “nearly two-thirds of the original 69 indicted workers either had their cases dismissed or were sentenced to probation, for terms that ranged from 36 months down to a single day.” Most of those arrested were married, under 35, and had young children — not the usual terrorist profile. The Tribune noted, “Most had valid Social Security numbers, which were intended only for driver’s licenses. They allegedly broke the law when they illegally used those Social Security cards to gain employment.” Some of those arrested no longer even worked at the airport.
Access Denied and Fly Trap

In Charlotte, North Carolina, in March 2002, 66 people were indicted in Operation Access Denied. Almost all of the current or former airport workers arrested were Hispanics charged with abusing Social Security numbers or immigration violations. U.S. Attorney Bob Conrad declared, “In the wake of 9/11, our mandate has changed. Our efforts now include terrorism — rooting it out and preventing it — especially at the airport.” Conrad warned, “Terrorists could use the fact that workers are illegal aliens to blackmail them into assisting the effort to sabotage a plane. That’s the concern that motivated this investigation. This is a preventative effort.” The Charlotte investigation involved 70 federal agents. At a time when the Bush administration was continually portraying the nation at risk of additional terrorist attacks, the feds concentrated their resources on janitors who wrote the wrong number on a job application.

The U.S. attorney puffed up his resume by also charging each person arrested with “entering an aircraft or airport area in violation of government security requirements.” The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University reported, “In previous years, these 66 cases almost certainly would have been classified as simple immigration matters. But in the post–9/11 world, the choice was obvious and each one was officially placed in the ‘domestic terrorism’ category.” TRAC noted that this categorization allowed the mass arrests in Charlotte to be portrayed as “an outstanding example of the government’s successful ‘war on terrorism.’” Everyone arrested was given a choice of going to trial — and getting a sentence of up to 20 years if he lost — or pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and getting out of jail after only a few weeks.

U.S. Attorney Conrad bragged, “It’s probably the first time in the court’s history that 50 defendants have been indicted, convicted, and deported all in the span of one month.” He talked as if deporting a busload of janitors was the same as vanquishing al-Qaeda.

On April 23, 2002, Operation Fly Trap arrested 94 workers employed at Dulles International Airport and Reagan Washington National Airport. U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty characterized the raids on employees as an “anti-terrorism initiative” but admitted that there was “no evidence at this point of any connection of these individuals to any terrorist organizations.” Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared at the victory press conference and proclaimed, “Our response has been to weave a web of terrorism prevention that brings together all agencies of justice and every level of law enforcement” and said the sweep was “the result of the unprecedented interagency, multi-jurisdictional cooperation among law enforcement that defines our effort to prevent terrorist attacks.”

A Chicago Tribune analysis of Operation Fly Trap noted, “Among those swept up were two nursing mothers, a 54-year-old Bolivian grandmother with rheumatoid arthritis, a National Guardsman, a man who operates a shoe shine business in one of the office buildings for the House of Representatives, and a student who made $6.35 an hour by taking notes for a deaf classmate.” The Tribune concluded, “Rather than striking a major blow against terrorism, the arrests ended up turning people’s lives inside out, causing tremendous embarrassment, anger and despair.”
The wrong bad guys

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, Operation Plane View erupted on June 6, 2002, with feds ordering many of the targets to “report to a secure basement area for a fictitious training program.” The targets soon learned that only federal officials had the right to make false statements in the vicinity of airports. Federal agents also zipped through the Hampton Roads area “rousting former workers from their beds at dawn,” the Virginian-Pilot reported. Those arrested were cuffed and marched before the television cameras. At the celebratory press conference, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, after conceding that none of the suspects was linked to terrorism, proclaimed, “I think there should be considerable concern that individuals who could be a threat to safety have been employed at the airport.” McNulty stressed, “All of these individuals present a risk. We don’t have information as to exactly what risks have occurred. We just know that the potential for harm is there.”

Most Operation Plane View cases quickly collapsed as a result of false charges, government paperwork screw-ups, and other problems. Two weeks after the initial raids, a Virginian-Pilot editorial observed, “In contrast with the government’s loud trumpeting of its ‘very successful’ roundup, it is remarkably silent on its embarrassing and possibly illegal goof-up. In the government’s hasty retreat, suddenly nothing is in plain view.” The paper denounced the operation as a “dangerous flop” and declared, “The only thing the government succeeded with in these pre-dawn raids on innocent citizens was to further shatter the public’s confidence in its ability to catch the right bad guys.”

Houston proudly conducted the biggest roundup in the country, bagging 143 people on September 9, 2002, for having bogus Social Security numbers, making false statements on job applications, having fake identification, or other offenses. U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby proclaimed, “Our goal is to make the airports secure for every man, woman, and child in the southern district of Texas so when they look up into the sky and see that airplane overhead, they can have some assurance that it is not being used as a manned missile.” But many of the people arrested had quit their jobs months or weeks before and were no longer in a position to aid Muslim fanatics. The crackdown was based on a list of airport employees that the INS had received in February; it took the feds more than six months to get around to dropping the hammer.

On September 17, 2002, 110 workers at Denver International Airport (DIA) were indicted as part of Operation Safe Sky. The vast majority were accused of using false Social Security numbers to get their airport security badges. U.S. Attorney John Suthers announced, “If you were a terrorist, you could do a lot of damage.” Suthers conceded that none of those arrested was a terrorist suspect but stressed, “We have every reason to believe a person who has terrorist motives could come into secure areas of the airport through the means we’ve described.” The cases were classified as “internal security — terrorism.”

Six months later, the Rocky Mountain News reported that two-thirds of the people indicted had never been arrested. Very few of those indicted who escaped the heavily publicized federal raid at DIA were ever caught. Many of the cases were dismissed and none of those arrested was sentenced to additional jail time (aside from time already served).
Wholesale lying

The airport mass arrests were, according to Attorney General Ashcroft, one of the greatest achievements in the war on terrorism. In an October 1, 2002, speech to a conference of U.S. Attorneys, he bragged, “We have conducted the largest investigation in history; disrupting and punishing possible terrorist-related activity throughout the United States. It’s working. Let me note just a few instances….” After invoking the arrests of Zacarias Moussaoui and John Walker Lindh, Ashcroft mentioned “Charlotte: 67 undocumented aliens indicted for identification-document fraud. Dulles and Reagan National Airports: 94 workers arrested and charged with falsifying Social Security applications and immigration violations.” But these cases had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta hailed Operation Tarmac’s busts: “We will not stop until we are satisfied we have a work force that the traveling public can trust.” But what of the far more dangerous whoppers told by high-ranking government officials — such as their lies to the public that flying was safe before 9/11? American travelers are at far greater risk from weasely cabinet secretaries than from fast-food workers. Operation Tarmac illustrated how “retail” lying is dangerous and can result in a prison sentence — while “wholesale” lying is a steppingstone to fame and greater power.

Unfortunately, few people recognized the political racketeering involved in the post–9/11 roundups of airport workers. That practically ensures that, if there is another major terrorist attack or some similar debacle, mass arrests will once again be used to burnish the government’s image.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.