The Los Angeles Times has done some great reporting of late on airline security, including the scoop last month about passengers who pounced on a man claiming to have a bomb. But a January 20 article about how some airlines are abusing power under the Patriot Act wholly misrepresents the facts.
In an article entitled “In-flight Confrontations Can Lead to Charges Defined as Terrorism,” Times reporters Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae write that, “at least 200 passengers have been convicted of felonies under the Patriot Act, often for behavior involving raised voices and profanity.” They tell the story of a single mother named Tamera Jo Freeman to prove their point.
Tamara Jo Freeman, they say, wound up in jail for three months after “she spanked [her children] on the thigh with three swats. It was a small incident,” according to the Times. Tamera Jo Freeman becomes the reporters’ poster girl for what they say is the airlines’ abuse of power. They suggest flight attendants in general — like so many TSA agents — have gone mad with power, co-opting the government’s post-9/11 draconian provisions of the Patriot Act with reckless abandon. So you better watch out. If you “swat” your kids or kiss your girlfriend on an airplane, you too could wind up in prison.
“I had no idea I was breaking the law,” the reporters quote Freeman, 40, as saying. The story ends with Freeman being released from prison only to learn that she has lost custody of her children who were sent to foster care in Hawaii. The final line in the article is a quote from Freeman in which she says, “I have cried. I have cried for my children every day. … I feel the system is failing me.”
What the reporters neglected to mention, though, was that it was in fact Freeman’s own behavior that failed her, long before she found a system to blame. In a U.S. District Court criminal complaint filed against Freeman, a different, horrific story is revealed. Freeman was previously arrested on two criminal counts: “Interference with flight crew” and “Assault [on] and beating individuals who had not attained the age of 16 years.” (I found the complaint thanks to Ken, a former federal prosecutor who blogs anonymously as Ken at Popehat.com.) The event occurred on an airplane and has very little to do with the Patriot Act, except that post 9/11, the charges on the first count elevated Freeman’s crime to a felony.
In this latest incident, Freeman repeatedly punched and slapped her children, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. One eyewitness watched Freeman drop her two-year-old on “his back and head” and leave him crying on the floor. (If that’s a “small incident,” I certainly hope that Vartabedian and Pae don’t have kids). Another eyewitness told an FBI agent that the drunk mother punched both her small children with a closed fist. This raises the question: what motivated the Times reporters to leave these facts out of their story?
In July 2007, FBI agent Scott D. Eicher, a 10-year veteran of the Bureau, filed an affidavit stating that he had interviewed the flight attendant, pilots, and several passengers and supported the arrest of Freeman based on the following facts:
- “Maria Aldeguer observed Freeman drinking alcohol on the flight, cursing and screaming at her children, and hitting the children with open fists on their shoulders and knees.”
- “David Shipman stated that he observed Freeman hit her children with a closed fist during the flight.”
- Carrie Storin, who was sitting in front of Freeman on the flight, heard Freeman hitting her children “the entire flight,” to the point where the children were trying to hide in a corner and on the floor.
- Amy Grant observed Freeman hitting her children repeatedly and yelling profanities at her children and at the flight attendant. She observed Freeman swing with an opened hand down at the children and heard the children crying after being struck.
- Katie Shanahan observed Freeman drop her son on his back and head on the ground when he did not want to go to the bathroom with her [in the airport]. Freeman let her son on the ground crying for several minutes.
- Dianne Delverstoni was the passenger who first approached the flight attendants regarding Freeman’s assaultive behavior toward the children. She observed Freeman hitting her son several times “over and over,” using profanity to the flight attendant, and throwing a drink.
In other words, it was the passengers who asked the flight attendants on Frontier Airlines to intervene for the welfare and safety of two helpless children. Their actions fell under the banner of society’s common welfare, not the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act indeed has significant flaws, including the fact that it allows the government to break in and search your home without your knowledge. Further, it allows the government to monitor what books you take out of the library and medical treatments you may have received. But when journalists misrepresent situations to prove a point it smells as dangerous as phony holocaust stories. The truth is more than enough.
Note: Annie Jacobsen contacted reporters Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae via their email addresses listed at the bottom of their story requesting comment. Neither responded by press time.