140 in Area Accused Of Lying; National's Flight Path to Revert
by Katherine Shaver and Allan Lengel, Washington Post
More than 140 employees at the Washington area's
three major airports have been indicted on charges of
lying about their identities or criminal pasts on
applications to work near airplanes, runways and
cargo, federal officials announced yesterday.
U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said the
charges demonstrated that the nation's system of
airport worker background checks needs tightening. He
said the reviews -- done piecemeal by airlines,
contractors, airports and private security companies
-- too often let illegal immigrants, felons and others
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation
announced that the Bush administration is comfortable
enough with heightened security on airplanes using
Reagan National Airport to lift post-Sept. 11 security
restrictions on the airport's flight path and
operating hours. [Details, Page A11.]
The indictments of the airport workers -- 26 of
whom were employed at National -- do not detract from
the enhanced security measures aboard airplanes, said
Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation
Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
"You're seeing continued steps to maximize the
level of safety," Alcivar said. "Make no mistake about
it, airports around the country have never been as
safe as they are, but we'll continue to do work."
Federal officials arrested a total of 95 employees
who worked at National and Dulles International
airports. They include food service workers, baggage
screeners and custodians. Forty-three other National
and Dulles employees were under indictment but were
still being sought.
Officials also said 10 workers at
Baltimore-Washington International Airport were
indicted on similar charges.
No one was charged in connection with a terrorist
act. Most were accused of lying on applications to
work in high-security areas. Authorities said the
misstatements included supplying false Social Security
numbers and failing to disclose felony convictions or
pending state charges.
"What this investigation uncovered should be a
wake-up call to every airport in America," Ashcroft
said as he announced the results of the five-month
investigation at an Alexandria news conference.
"Americans deserve the confidence of knowing that the
individuals working at our airports are worthy of
Since Sept. 11, federal authorities have conducted
similar raids at a half-dozen airports, including Salt
Lake City, Denver and Miami. However, yesterday's
arrests refocused attention on security lapses at
airports that are just minutes, and in National's case
even seconds, from the White House, the Pentagon and
other potential terrorist targets. Authorities noted
that American Airlines Flight 77, which terrorists
hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, took off from
FBI and Federal Aviation Administration officials
have found no evidence that the Sept. 11 hijackers had
accomplices among airport employees.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers
Association, said the arrests highlight how much
airport security had deteriorated before Sept. 11 as
well as the remaining gaps that terrorists could
"I think the concern the public should have is how
inadequate airline and aviation security had gotten
that we're now just discovering these things,"
Stempler said. "We all thought people with access to
planes were somehow being checked, but apparently not
to the extent they should have been."
Patricia A. Friend, president of the Association of
Flight Attendants, said the arrests bolstered her
group's arguments that airport workers should have to
pass through the same metal detectors and personal
searches that flight crews undergo before entering
"I think it makes the point we've been trying to
make that everybody who has access to a secure area of
airports or airplanes should be thoroughly screened,"
Washington area airports, along with most others in
the country, have no way of making sure that happens.
Cargo areas, outlying gates and remote airport doors
often are protected only by electronic locks that can
be opened with a swipe of an employee's identification
Congress ordered the new Transportation Security
Administration to find a way to put ramp workers
through security screening but imposed no deadline.
Federal officials have studied the issue but taken
little action because they are consumed with
addressing issues for which Congress did set
deadlines: getting thousands of federal baggage
screeners in place by Nov. 19 and installing
bomb-detection equipment in all airports by the end of
Led by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern
District of Virginia, 11 state and federal agencies
researched the employment histories and backgrounds of
20,000 people who have access to secure areas at
Northern Virginia's two airports, U.S. Attorney Paul
J. McNulty said. The U.S. attorney's office in
Baltimore said its investigation examined 15,000
security badge applications.
The Dulles and National investigation targeted 138
people for arrest yesterday, including nearly 30
accused of lying about criminal records, four wanted
in state crimes and 12 charged with immigration fraud.
If convicted, they could face two to 10 years in
The investigation has not turned up anyone with
ties to terrorist groups or the Sept. 11 hijackings,
McNulty said. Many were illegal immigrants with
falsified Social Security numbers, but a substantial
number were U.S. citizens, he said.
"It's more of a preventive measure to avoid
potential security problems down the road," said Allan
Doody, special agent in charge of the Washington area
U.S. Customs Service office. "I think the public wants
to know that people who work at airports don't have
John Magaw, undersecretary of transportation for
security, said no one group should be blamed for the
hiring foul-up because responsibility for the
background checks is spread among several groups.
"It's the process we have to straighten out," he
Alcivar said Mineta will announce today that
National's quieter, over-the-Potomac flight path may
be restored as early as Saturday. Pilots will no
longer have to use the direct path in and out of
National designed to quickly detect any plane straying
To help struggling airlines restore more flights,
Alcivar said, National will no longer have a 10
p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew on flights. Instead, it will
return to its previous self-imposed nighttime noise
rules limiting most flights to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Larger planes, such as 757s, also will be allowed to
return to National.
Only planes with 156 or fewer seats have been
permitted since the airport reopened Oct. 4. He said
the changes would not affect the post-Sept. 11 ban on
business, charter and private aircraft using
"This is another part of our continuing effort to
balance [residents'] quality of life and the economic
health of the aviation and travel industry against the
need to maximize security," Alcivar said.