Sometime early Monday, the Department of Homeland Security — America’s multi-billion dollar national security net — determined that two male travelers of Yemeni descent had boarded United Airlines Flight 908 and were headed to Amsterdam. DHS notified the federal air marshals on board — a message would have gone through the United Airlines pilots as federal air marshals are prohibited from using electronic devices on airplanes while in flight. Making things even more dramatic, DHS notified Dutch police who, once the plane had landed at Schiphol Airport, dramatically handcuffed the men, took them off the aircraft, and arrested them. More than two days later the men remain in custody, according to the Dutch lawyer for one of the men, Wouter Hendrickx, “following a request from U.S. authorities.”
The reason for the terror-threat alarm was, as far as we know, twofold. Inside one of the men’s checked bags were mock bombs, knives, and box cutters — oddly discovered earlier in the day by TSA agents in Birmingham, Alabama, and cleared for flight, but which later in the day would up on a totally different flight headed to Washington, D.C., Dubai, and then Yemen. The second, apparently more alarming part of the equation (TSA had already determined the baggage contents caused no threat) came when DHS determined that both men had at the last minute changed their itineraries and decided to go to Amsterdam instead of D.C.-Dubai-Yemen.
Sometime on Monday afternoon, a “law enforcement official” (which is now how DHS asks press to refer to them) gave ABC’s Brain Ross a breaking news story with an attention-grabbing quote. The two men taken off the Chicago-to-Amsterdam United Airlines flight had been charged by Dutch police with “preparation of a terrorist attack.”
As far as the DHS national security machine is concerned, it doesn’t get any more serious than that. And that quote is certainly not something a veteran newsman like Brain Ross is going to get wrong.
FBI agents were sent to Detroit to search al Soofi’s apartment. One neighbor told reporters that the front door of an apartment al Soofi once lived in appeared to have been kicked down.
All throughout the following morning, DHS and TSA officials at headquarters refused to answer questions on the record. I spoke to three TSA agents and two DHS agents, none of whom would provide me with any on-record information other than a previously released official statement describing the investigation as “ongoing.”
This reporter then was interviewed on National Public Radio, providing the world with an exclusive, totally different version of events. ABC’s Brian Ross had rushed to judgment, the Times reporter said, explaining that news is a competitive business and insinuating that the desire to make money had gotten in the way of good judgment (nevermind what the unnamed DHS official originally said). According to the Times, what had happened was a just a mistake, a mix-up, a confusion of sorts. It was United Airlines who had changed the mens’ itineraries in the first place — after they missed their flight to Yemen via Washington, D.C. It was United Airlines who instead re-booked the two men to Amsterdam. It was all one big misunderstanding.
Wait a minute.