Ask the pilot

The hysterical skies, Part 2: I call up Annie Jacobsen, who in defiance of all obtainable facts continues to claim she was a witness to a terrorist "dry run."

Published July 30, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror ..."

-- Franklin Roosevelt, 1933

The evening of my published rebuttal to Annie Jacobsen's scare story about sharing a Northwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles with a gang of hyperactive Syrian musicians, I attended an outdoor concert in Boston's South End. On stage was the Sharq Ensemble, an Arabic music sextet. As any connoisseur of fine irony will understand, I relished the fact that two of the band members (five Arabs and a Turk) were from Syria.

The show came to an end uneventfully, without a single casualty among the hundred or so concertgoers. Of course, there remains the distinct possibility that I witnessed a so-called "dry run." The musicians claimed to be professionals -- graduates of prestigious conservatories -- but I'm not so sure. They struck me as a menacing lot, glancing conspiratorially at one another while seeming to case the audience. Not once did I witness law enforcement personnel verifying visas, green cards, or notes of permission signed by the ambassador from Damascus. It appears you could pack quite a bit of Semtex into those odd Middle Eastern instruments. Will the next show conclude with the Qanun player blowing himself up on stage?

If you can't tell, my temptation to mock Jacobsen's account remains unabated. In retrospect I'll concede that my initial piece may have been a little more burlesque than it needed to be -- my cheap shot at Jacobsen's "grade school prose," for one, deserved the editorial shears -- but at the time I felt she deserved a good lampoon more than a serious dissection. Little has changed, and I stand by my general assertion that her narrative served no purpose other than to inflame and frighten.

If you think I'm recycling this issue for the sake of a few more laughs and lack of anything better to opine about, please know that Jacobsen continues to garner undeserved hype and coverage through major television, print and radio outlets.

On July 23 she appeared on a nationwide call-in show maestroed by conservative advocate Michael Smerconish. That's the same Smerconish on whose local Philadelphia show I appeared last week, and whose callers ridiculed me for refusing to swallow Jacobsen's reactionary bait. This time, he announced to millions of listeners that Annie Jacobsen was nothing less than "a victim of terrorism."

Smerconish, a lawyer by trade, has a book coming out: "Flying Blind -- How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety, Post-9/11." (Note the attractive cover and somewhat less than shy exploitation of the 9/11 reference, which appears in numerals four times the size of the accompanying wording.) The author appears eager to parlay Jacobsen's hissy fit into ammo for the conservative agenda. He links his Web site to both her original column at, and its even more treacly follow-up.

I'm unsure what saddens me more -- Jacobsen's rhetoric itself, or the manner in which commentators and pundits have spun the story into a partisan conflict of ideals: Those who find folly in draconian security measures and racial scapegoating are, to use one of my most loathed Bushisms, siding with the enemy.

A victim of terrorism? I asked Annie Jacobsen what she thought of such audacious speculation presented as fact. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinions," she answers. "Look, I'm a Democrat. I did not intend for this to be made a political issue, and I feel bad that it became one."

Odd for a Democrat to have referenced the national security expertise of Ann Coulter, but this, she daringly claims, was a decision borne of strict practicality and not ideology. "I barely knew who Ann Coulter was. And to be honest, I expected hardly anybody to read my piece to begin with."

Meanwhile, a Federal Air Marshals source confided to Los Angeles radio station KFI that Annie and her husband were as much of a spectacle aboard Flight 327 as the Syrians, something she vociferously denies. "Absolutely not," she says. "I hardly spoke to anybody during the flight, and I never got out of my seat other than to use the bathroom. Reports that my behavior was cause for alarm are simply not factual."

Agents say they verified the band members' identities at LAX, and all 14 were interrogated and cross-checked against terrorist watch lists. National Review, hardly a well of impartiality, cites James Cullen, a music promoter, confirming that the musicians arrived on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 not to spread mayhem throughout Southern California, but to play backup at the Sycuan Casino & Resort for Nour Mehana, a well-known Syrian-born singer. (Nour's disturbing likeness to Wayne Newton has not gone unnoticed, and brings up even more unsettling questions about who we let into this country. Is one Wayne Newton not enough?)

At this point, whether or not the Arabs on Flight 327 were hapless minstrels or scheming scoundrels is growing less important, even to those touting the supposition that the men were terrorists. Unable to fashion hard facts from conjecture, they present the story either as a lecture on the dangers of political correctness, or as otherwise groundless evidence that gangs of Muslims are running psy-ops surveillance for an eventual attack. Much the way our disastrous foray into Iraq is garbled by extraneous justifications, Jacobsen's ride to Los Angeles is co-opted into an excuse to discuss proverbial "greater issues."

Are there, somewhere in all of this, important discussions waiting to happen? Is it not true that airlines have been fined for selecting more than two passengers of the same ethnic extraction for preflight screening? Is it not unreasonable that our hypersensitivity to offending certain races or nationalities undermines air safety? Certainly so, but if Jacobsen wanted to advocate the need for profiling, she ought to have written a story in which profiling had a kernel of relevance, instead of one boiling over with histrionics and meaningless innuendo.

And she may have done her loudmouth proponents more of a disservice than she realizes. On June 29, the day of her infamous trip, the Department of Homeland Security issued an internal memo warning that a group of Pakistani men, alleged to be graduates of al-Qaida training camps, might be traveling through the U.S. The communiqué specifically mentioned Detroit and Los Angeles, origin and terminus of Annie's flight. This could explain the presence of the onboard marshals. She lobbies for increased attention paid to Muslim passengers, and ironically it might be exactly that which managed to exonerate the Syrian musicians.

"But didn't you hear?" she says. "The Syrians were traveling on expired visas!" Why wasn't this discovered at LAX? Democrat Jacobsen follows up by e-mailing me an article from that stalwart of left-wing media, the Washington Times. Along with other, perhaps more objective, sources, the Times reports the men's P-3 artist visas turning into Homeland Security pumpkins on June 10, only 10 days after they arrived in the United States for a six-week concert tour.

But not so fast. While Jacobsen and others have seized on a visa's shelf life as reason enough to have to NORAD aiming its rockets toward Damascus, complicating matters is the fine print of the alien registration rules. The following is taken from a post on Michelle Malkin's blog site, which in the dearth of official statements has become a de-facto home page of the Jacobsen controversy.

"The period of an alien's authorized stay isn't governed by the visa. How long an alien can stay is governed by the date on his or her I-94. The I-94 is a form foreigners fill out on admission and approved by the immigration inspector. A musician on tour can apply for an extension of status. This extension allows the foreigner to remain in the U.S. longer, but has no effect on when the visa on which he or she came into the U.S. expires."

Queries to the public affairs office at the U.S. Department of State verify this. "The visa provides admission to the country and nothing more," a staff member explains. "The expiration of the visa itself is totally irrelevant." Not to the Washington Times it's not. Why muck up a good witch hunt with the petty specifics of law?

The bulk of evidence suggests the men were here in full legal compliance. "There was no legal basis for any manner of law enforcement," says David Adams, spokesperson of the Federal Air Marshals, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. "Everything was carefully checked out. Agents interrogated the men, attended their concert, and verified their stay at a local hotel." Adams tells me the men had played several gigs at numerous venues around the country.

Of course, you needn't be a convicted criminal or watch-listed radical operative to be a potential terrorist. With nothing else to go on, Jacobsen's allies keep coming around to the "dry run" theory. The trouble with this proposition is that it leaves open every Arab, and for that matter anybody who is conspicuously Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Central Asian, to a guilty-until-innocent presumption. The dry run idea provides a vague, but craftily indisputable fallback. Who can prove it wasn't a rehearsal?

"Annie Jacobsen is entitled to her own interpretations," says David Adams, lightly emphasizing that last word in a manner that suggests we read between the lines. "While the 19 original hijackers are known to have conducted test runs, there is no specific intelligence that terrorists are conducting test flights or surveillance activities on U.S. airliners. Period."

Baloney, claims Jacobsen, who at times seems eager to refute everything short of the earth revolving around the sun. "All I know is that I saw what I saw. Those men were up to something and I cannot believe otherwise."

Something nefarious, dastardly and deadly?

"I saw what I saw."

She states that the rambunctious behavior witnessed on Flight 327 has been confirmed by "numerous individuals" as telltale signals of a terrorist dress rehearsal. "You know," she says, "It turns out there was a second, eerily parallel incident." Once again she pulls out her Washington Times, which makes tauntingly vague note of "similar activity" on a flight last February between Puerto Rico and New York. "The six men involved worked for a cruise ship and were carrying musician's cases with instruments." No further explanation is given.

Jacobsen claims to be a fairly savvy flier, but anybody who has shared an airliner cabin with a group of any kind, be it a sports team, a band, or a bunch of ex-classmates heading for a college reunion, knows that such clusters tend to be boisterous and animated and move around a lot. What made this different, exactly? The ethnicity of the suspected perpetrators is my guess. Following the events of 2001, we are programmed to react fearfully when confronted by the combo of young Arab males and jet airplanes. That's understandable, and does not necessarily make us racists and bigots. But it does predispose us to act irrationally and, in some cases, shamefully. For the record, I do not consider Annie Jacobsen to be racist or prejudiced in any strict sense. However, I do feel she has fed, and continues to feed, many people's bigoted preconceptions.

"I don't care what country they were from," she answers. "Had the men on that plane been 14 Swedes, I'd have felt exactly the same way."

That's a noble and, dare I say it, politically correct bunch of hogwash, but I guess I give her credit her for trying.

I'd like to point out that several acts of airborne terror in American skies have come at the hands of non-Muslims and non-Arabs, from an insurance scam bombing of a 707 back in the 1960s, to suicide skyjackings over California in 1964 and 1987 (crews shot dead, planes crashed), to the attempted siege of a Federal Express DC-10 by a hammer- and spear-gun-toting off-duty pilot. Somewhere in there rests the Achilles heel of profiling -- a tantalizing idea, but one that wouldn't accomplish much other than knocking the system, at great cost and stress, into the next unwinnable phase of cat and mouse.

Be they Swedes or Syrians, it has long been my assertion -- in this column, in my book, and elsewhere -- that no sensible terrorists will be stupid enough to consider a copycat Sept. 11 attack. The 2001 modus operandi took advantage of a decades-old hijack protocol -- to land safely before procrastinating and, if need be, negotiating with the perpetrators. That protocol was terminated the moment American Airlines Flight 11 met its fate against the Trade Center's north tower.

Neither do I find it believable that a tag-team of 14 people would need be employed to assemble a bomb in an airplane lavatory -- another scenario thrown around by talk masters and pundits, borrowed from intelligence reports that operatives may try to smuggle aboard bombs one component at a time. Might they? Sure, but there are probably a hundred thousand other mechanisms of terror at any saboteur's disposal. Apoplexy over each and every one is the surest recipe for defeat. A frightened victim, in the grand scheme of terrorist philosophy, isn't a whole lot different from a dead one.

"Don't you find it disturbing," Annie Jacobsen asks me, "that a restaurant beyond the secure perimeter of an airport terminal is able to dispense forks!" Visas, hijackings, lavatory bombs, and now silverware? In her own style of martyrdom, Jacobsen sounds anxious to sling-shoot every last detail of Flight 327 onto every last surface to see what sticks.

Anathema as it might sound, I could not care less about forks. In the strange-bedfellows department, I have none other than Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., on my side regarding the complete futility of our zero-tolerance obsession with, as I like to call them, weapons of mass distraction. Mica is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, and has publicly voiced his belief that certain tools and implements -- heretofore dangerous in the eyes of zealous TSA screeners -- once again be allowed onboard airliners.

None of this maintains that America's sworn enemies will not heed their delusions of martyrdom and again strike. They probably will. My point is that our expectations of that violence will most almost surely prove off-mark, and meantime they drain our resources and waste our time. We continue to fuddle and obsess over corkscrews, butter knives and whether or not swarthy foreigners are eyeing the cockpit door.

Jacobsen is surprised that a pilot would feel this way. Aircrews, according to her testimonials, are in lockstep with the notions of skyjackings and dry runs. "Most every pilot I've spoken to," she says, "knows these things are going on." She claims to have heard "disturbing examples" from various crewmembers, but refuses to cite examples or speak on the record. "This is common knowledge," she says.

Is it? The e-mails below are edited for clarity and the exact identities of the writers withheld ...

"I appreciate your rebuttal to Annie Jacobsen. I am always surprised at how fellow flight attendants and passengers sometimes react to some of these situations. I see Arabs and Arab-Americans on flights frequently, alone and in groups. When you become suspicious of certain passengers on the basis of race, all of their normal behaviors become suspect."

-- Dale, flight attendant, major airline

"Do Arab males fly aboard our carriers? Have they always flown aboard our carriers? Could one or all of the men on Flight 327 have been terrorists? Could the white male in Row 15 also have been a terrorist? Was Timothy McVeigh a white male? Was John Walker Lindh a white male? Was Mrs. Jacobsen's article the most ridiculous, paranoia- stricken, overblown article ever written? Have we become a fear-frozen country? I recently had my car inspected by a Pakistani mechanic. Perhaps I should check the tailpipe for explosives."

-- Michael, Airbus A320 first officer, major airline

"I have been following Ms. Jacobsen's story since it first broke. She claims to have the backing of pilots; however, I speak for every pilot I know in saying that she has little or no support within the ranks. This was not an act of terrorism, but rather a serious exaggeration of something that happens almost daily on aircraft across the country and around the world. Although we must now exercise prudence, that prudence must be tempered by reason. I see no reason in Jacobsen's tirade."

-- David, 757 first officer, major airline

"I don't want that woman on my plane. We have enough problems with weather, air traffic control and the TSA -- all doing a very nice job of making us late!"

-- Michael, instructor pilot, Continental Express

"I was a friend and U.S. Navy squadron partner of Tom "Stout" McGuinness, the copilot on American Airlines Flight 11. After Sept. 11 I had a different reaction than many of my co-workers. I did not understand, for example, the urgency to hold Iraq accountable for terrorism when the original hijackers and their funding were Saudi Arabian. My take is that Annie Jacobsen's point of view is symptomatic of a greater societal dysfunction -- one shared with many airline pilots, being consumers of all things conservative -- which trots out the usual cast of bogeymen: welfare mothers, Muslims, and, especially, liberals."

-- Dan, Boeing 777 first officer, major airline

And so on.

Evidence and reason submit that Northwest Airlines Flight 327 was the scene of nothing more than gross misinterpretation. And although Annie Jacobsen was entitled to a measure of uncertainty while high above the Rockies en route to California, she has done all of us an embarrassing disservice by ignoring the facts and pandering to partisan noisemakers.

Mysteries remain. The precise status of the Syrians' travel documents, itineraries and current whereabouts is unknown. What were their names? Why have none come forward? Why was Mr. Cullen, the music promoter who verified the performance at the casino, reportedly asked by Homeland Security not to comment further to the media? They are legitimate, if not particularly foreboding, questions all. But government bureaus, historically uptight and perhaps less than eager to expose the politically sensitive realities of ostensibly "lenient" rules, aren't saying much. The result, as we see, is a hailstorm of rumor and rampant speculation.

With the simplest of clarifications from the proper spokespeople, Jacobsen would be off the air and her witch-hunting minions forced back into her xenophobic bunkers. Alas, say the cynics, there are those in power more than pleased with this arrangement, chortling along with the blowhards and conspiracy peddlers whose only duty is to stoke the coals of fear.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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