Ask the pilot

Apparently no one can stop Annie Jacobsen from pandering to people's crudest fears. It's time to say bye-bye to the hysterical flier.


Patrick Smith
August 21, 2004 12:12AM (UTC)

Annie Jacobsen's mind and keyboard seem to be stuck at Terror Code Red in that Northwest Airlines 757, high over the Rocky Mountains. I think it is best to leave her there. Frankly, there's little chance of talking her down. To those of you who wrote from Turkey, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere, entertained by the foibles of us Americans but nonetheless tired of this story, I have good news: This is my last word on l'affaire Jacobsen.

I came to this decision after grinding my way through installment 5 of "Terror in the Skies, Again," this one titled "Another Passenger From Flight 327 Steps Forward With Disturbing New Details." That passenger is a woman named Billie Jo Rodriguez, whose paranoid ramble so teetered on the threshold of self-parody that I wondered if the whole thing wasn't a practical joke. "Inspector" Rodriguez actually monitored the breathing patterns of the Syrians as they sat on the plane with their eyes closed. Because their exhalations weren't heavy enough, she wants us to believe, the men were only pretending to sleep.

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Jacobsen spends the bulk of her new column asking why authorities have not bothered to locate and interview additional passengers from flight 327. That's a question answered long ago by law enforcement agencies who detained and interrogated the 14 Syrians. Besides, she's the journalist: Why doesn't she get in touch with one of the musicians and let us hear his side of the story? Regardless, whether two or 200 passengers were interviewed is not the point, and the relentless obsession with every picayune detail of the men's behavior -- from the glints in their eyes to timed observations of their trips to the toilet -- skirts a certain fact: The men were investigated and found to be harmless.

As I've written before, the events of 2001 left every one of us predisposed to suspicion and prejudice. Sitting in an airplane with jitters over the conspicuous presence of a group of young Arabs is neither unexpected nor, necessarily, irrational. But although we're entitled to a degree of unease, we are not entitled to groundless assumptions and paranoia. Not once in the past six weeks has Jacobsen given us even a moment's worth of self-doubt or skeptical analysis. What she presents as an "investigation" is fatally encumbered by her own foregone conclusion.

Unable to accept any premise that the Syrians were innocent, she needs to rehash every cartoonish tidbit -- people making secret gestures, pretending to sleep, smelling like chemicals when they returned from the lav -- lest her inquest be brought to a summary close. She demands that authorities act not on evidence or the rule of law, but on a "belief" that the men had nefarious intentions, despite all evidence to the contrary. She begins with the premise of guilt and works backward, then chides her critics for failure to prove a negative.

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"It dawned on me that I need to hear from the FBI," writes Jacobsen in the final paragraphs of Part 5. "Clearly, it's time for me to write a letter to Robert Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." A letter about what? Mueller's reply, not that she is owed one, is sure to spark new "inconsistencies" and bring about more "unanswered questions." Hang around for Parts 6, 7, and 8.

Some people see this tenacious crusade as one of grass-roots doggedness -- Jacobsen as the "aware American" (her words) seeking truth from a stalled bureaucracy. Others see it differently -- as pathologically pandering to people's crudest fears and assumptions. The temptation is to give her a dose of her own medicine, to use the most devious conjecture and speculation to reach a bad-faith conclusion: I "believe" Annie Jacobsen is a deranged kook, and everything above "proves" it. Could she please now show us that she's not.

Her answer would be that she owes us nothing, that she's done nothing wrong or crazy, and that everybody is entitled to an opinion. Has it ever dawned on her that the FBI, Federal Air Marshal Service, Transportation Security Administration and a band of 14 musicians are likely saying exactly the same thing?

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No, I do not think Jacobsen is a lunatic. But I do think her articles have crossed the line from journalism - where they never had much hold to begin with -- to vigilante witchcraft, and the editors at WomensWallStreet.com should be ashamed of their hand in perpetuating this sad nonsense.

I managed to reach Bob Flamm, executive director of the Federal Air Marshal Association, the controversial spinoff of wayward marshals spotlighted in last week's column. Flamm says the FAMA Web site, for now still brimming with combative imagery, will shortly be revised, and he's less than thrilled with any interpretation of his organization as a fringe group of trigger-happy militiamen. "Our mission statement is very simple," he explains: "to create safer skies."

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He assures me that FAMA's choice of name and acronym is not meant to incite confusion with the Federal Air Marshal Service, or FAMS, the official government agency under auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. "We're a nonprofit," says Flamm, "in no way presenting ourselves as part of the government. We go out of our way to make that clear."

Possibly it's not the association's fault as much as it is the fault of those who've been citing and interviewing them. The trouble is, you've got the marshals themselves, who are not allowed to speak to the press, and FAMA, which does speak. The distinction between entities, in quotations or on camera, is not an obvious one.

One federal marshal who did go public, with the blessing of his superiors, was the one aboard flight 327, disputing much of Jacobsen's eyewitness testimonial to a reporter from Time magazine. Flamm calls the interview "a major contradiction" to FAMS policy, and like Jacobsen paints the marshal's account as somewhere between inconsistent and incompetent. Inconvenient, perhaps, is the better word.

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FAMA's press releases continue to hype the purported existence of ongoing terrorist probes - those so-called dry runs -- despite assertions to the contrary from officials in Washington. "There is no question that these type of test runs and probes are going on," Flamm maintains. "And the public needs to be aware of them. When people get on a plane, they have the right to know about this."

Flamm says the government is failing to acknowledge nearly 200 reports of terrorist probes aboard U.S. jetliners over the past year or so. When I spoke with Jacobsen a few weeks ago, she broke into a rant about crews having witnessed Middle Eastern passengers peeling back the tines of forks, reading books upside down, making bluff runs at the cockpit door, etc. -- all supposed evidence of terrorists testing our reactions.

She and Flamm would like us to believe that 200 of these events have been reported, but that nobody in Washington will admit their existence or talk on the record about them. When pressed for details on where these reports are, or how I might view a copy of one, Flamm defers to the vagaries of what sounds like a conspiracy theory: "That's something you need to look into yourself. You ought to be asking the government."

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The supposition of overt dry-run rehearsals is dubious on so many levels that I can hardly begin to dissect them. Terrorists have limited resources and limited ranks. It's doubtful enough, for reasons thrashed out here several times, that Arab saboteurs would succeed with a copycat Sept. 11 attack. It's absurd, in preparation for such an attack, that they would be sent to the United States amid the most extensive anti-terror intel blitz in history and make public spectacles of themselves. That's not to play loose with the lessons of Sept. 11. Surprise, after all, was that day's most effective and deadly weapon. On the contrary, it's to emphasize that we're safer and better prepared.

I asked Flamm why 14 men would be assigned to play hide-and-go-seek on a 757, brazenly risking exposure in the very theater -- civil aviation -- most heavily guarded and fortified? "You're asking me to assume the mindset of a terrorist," he responds. "And I can't do that."

Ross Johnson, on the other hand, is up to the challenge. Johnson was the director of intelligence of an aviation security company and a military intelligence officer in Canada for many years. He's been following the Jacobsen saga closely and finds the dry-run thesis badly flawed.

"Covert surveillance I can understand," he says, "but a group of 14 people in the throes of a full rehearsal makes no sense. Why would you want to tip off the authorities? Why would you risk compromising the identities of so many of your people? We should be so lucky to have terrorists act so stupidly."

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What Jacobsen and FAMA seem to be saying is this: The terrorists are out there and your government is lying about it.

So whose controversy is this anyway? The irony is that Jacobsen has become a darling of reactionary commentary. To a nationwide audience, conservative talk-show host Michael Smerconish went so far as to label her "a victim of terrorism." Near as I can tell, the message is this: There are evildoers among us and it's our patriotic duty to fear them. Those evildoers are either Islamic radicals or Democrats, often in cahoots.

But when examined carefully, the simultaneous presumption of terrorist probes and a government coverup fails to square, at least politically. The present conservative administration has no qualms about keeping people edgy through repeated terror warnings and color-coded alerts. Why then not capitalize on reports of terrorists casing planes?

Cynics might suggest it's because the government needs to pick and choose how and where to frighten people. A vague sense of fear is one thing, as are the minimal impacts of cordoning off a few public buildings or skyscrapers when the mood is politically expedient. Helping to drive already struggling airlines out of business is something else. Publicized warnings of airborne terror activity would be calamitous for the nation's carriers, upsetting Republican reelection chances through the economic fallout of bankruptcies and shutdowns.

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Which does not imply that some, all or none of the supposed terrorist probes have merit, only that they allow the administration to trundle out Tom Ridge with the next duck-and-cover assignment.

Now, let's assume that terrorists are indeed out there probing. By concealing information, the government is guilty of negligence or worse. When an attack occurs, the administration looks conniving and foolish, and conservatives have the whole mess thrown right back at them.

Or maybe there are no known probes and the government is telling the truth.

The non-events of flight 327 are invoked in arguments that "political correctness" -- that traitorous, liberal-spawned concept -- is undermining airline security. The left's preoccupation with p.c. sensibilities, so goes the argument, has prevented us from implementing valuable programs of racial and ethnic profiling. Jacobsen's second column contained an almost unbearably corny lamentation on the scourge of political correctness, the presumption being that it somehow lent a hand toward vindicating the 14 Syrians. How, exactly, isn't clear, though apparently those darn civil liberties and a niggling dearth of evidence kept us from shipping the musicians to Guantánamo Bay fast enough.

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"Whether or not profiling is racist is irrelevant," says Stanley J. Alluisi, a professor at the Aviation Sciences Institute, Southeastern Oklahoma State University. "More to the point, it's an inefficient use of resources and unlikely to produce good results. Without an extremely specific set of data upon which to build a profile, it would tag so many people as to be useless. Keeping a lookout for 'Middle Eastern men' doesn't help and actually hurts by wasting resources."

"If security authorities are told to look closely at Middle Eastern males," adds Johnson, the military intelligence officer, "then someday the threat will show up as female and Caucasian. In the anti-terrorism business, routine is weakness. The Israelis began successfully profiling suicide bombers as young males, so the Palestinians started sending females and middle-aged men. The first few got through."

To wit, USA Today reported on Aug. 16 that al-Qaida has begun recruiting non-Arab operatives from Bosnia and Chechnya to avoid scrutiny.

Whenever this subject arises, people are quick to cite the example of El Al, the Israeli national airline whose tough-as-nails security regimen includes profiling. But El Al is a relatively tiny carrier (28 planes) with a single small hub. It's easy for them to track and monitor virtually everybody who rides. In this country, half a billion people fly annually. And if El Al is our model of success, you should hear the story of Omar, a Palestinian American who lives in Berkeley, Calif.

Omar was born in the United States, carries a U.S. passport, and speaks without an accent. One day he showed up at the El Al ticket counter at Kennedy airport after spending $1,500 for a ticket to visit his relatives in Israeli-controlled Palestine. Omar was refused transport on El Al and no explanation was given. When he protested, the airline's staff asked the police to escort him from the terminal.

Switching to another carrier, Omar finally landed in Israel. Because he had been denied passage on El Al, however, he was also denied entry into the country and was immediately sent back to America. Having been banned from El Al, and because he'd been denied passage into Israel, he was subsequently detained and interrogated at every connecting point both abroad and in the United States.

"Orwell was an optimist," Omar said. He lost the full price of his ticket and is fearful of attempting the trip again. He reminds us that the Syrians on flight 327 would probably face similar groundless detainment should they ever attempt to visit the United States again, for the absurd reason of having once been wrongly suspected of something.

I have a postulate when it comes to air safety: If a given idea has the tendency to provoke contention and polemics, it's probably a bad one. After Sept. 11, there were no partisan tirades over the fortification of cockpit doors. Why not? Because it was a good and useful idea. There was little or no sparring over the implementation of explosives-screening machines. Why not? Because it was a good and useful idea. Now comes profiling, the perfect idea if our aim is to embroil ourselves in an unwinnable shell game.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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