“Revenge is a delicacy best served cold,” the mafia saying goes.
Recent events involving the Department of Homeland Security — a CNN reporter watch-listed and a former federal air marshal being threatened with obstruction of justice — are enough to make one ask: has the TSA been watching too much mob TV?
Last spring, shortly after airing a news report that embarrassed the TSA and the Federal Air Marshal Service, CNN’s investigative reporter Drew Griffin was suddenly placed on the TSA’s terrorist watch list. Last week, CNN ran a follow-up piece. Anderson Cooper interviewed Griffin — a reporter who had suddenly moved from telling an important story to being part of it.
The day after the Cooper-Griffin exchange, Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) formally called for a probe into the TSA’s seemingly vengeful act. Jackson Lee asked DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff the following:
“My question is why would Drew Griffin’s name come on the watch list, post-his investigation of TSA?” Jackson Lee said.
“What is the basis of this sudden recognition that Drew Griffin is a terrorist? Are we targeting people because of their critique or criticism?”
Chertoff hedged, saying it was not his “understanding the reporter was put on [the list]” but that Griffin may share a name with someone put on the list.
Which is almost impossible to believe. Unless you are willing to accept that someone else coincidentally named Drew Griffin was discovered to be a terrorist almost seven years after 9/11 but within a week or two of CNN’s March 2008 air date.
To anyone who isn’t trying to finger-plug the sieve in the aviation security wall called TSA, the answer to Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee’s question is quite clearly “yes.” The TSA does target people who critique or criticize the TSA.
A look at the story behind the Drew Griffin story — that would be the original story Griffin reported on — makes this painfully clear.
Last March, in a report ironically called “Keeping Them Honest,” Drew Griffin revealed that of the 28,000 daily commercial flights, fewer than 1% are guarded by federal air marshals. Further, Griffin interviewed rank and file who revealed that morale was so low that colleagues were leaving the service in disgust. Thinner than ever on numbers, the TSA was now fast-tracking airport screeners to carry weapons on planes. Many of these screeners lacked any law enforcement experience, military training, or college degrees.
Drew Griffin’s report embarrassed the TSA. So instead of merely addressing the problem on which he reported, TSA put its resources into trying to find out who spoke to Drew Griffin.
The TSA started by opening an investigation into a former federal air marshal named Jeffrey Denning. The TSA had somehow gotten hold of a personal email Denning had received from another air marshal, one who was looking for colleagues who were willing to talk to Drew Griffin at CNN. Denning did not talk to CNN — he was fighting with the Army Reserves in Iraq when the original story went down. But from Iraq, Denning forwarded the email on. That is the source of the TSA’s investigation. They want Denning to say who sent him the email.
Jeffrey Denning is a decorated former Dallas police SWAT team member, a prize-winning former federal air marshal, and a father of four. In an interview with me last week, Denning conceded that he was scared. Why is TSA inexplicably targeting him, he wants to know. Lots of people received the original email (which CNN posts here). Last week, CNN put the email’s true author, in black face, on TV. But the TSA wants the name of the email author from Denning. And the subtext is a rather mob-like “or else.”
Denning explains this to me: “The fact that [TSA] would launch an official investigation of me is reason to be alarmed. Could I be charged with obstruction of justice? Is something going to happen to me if I don’t tell them who forwarded this email to me? Lots of people know who [wrote] the email, including CNN. So why are they specifically targeting me?”
It’s a good question. I asked Denning if the answer could lie in an interview he gave last year, one which embarrassed high-ranking officials not just at TSA, but DHS as a whole. He said he had not ruled that possibility out.
In “Ticket to American University or Ticket to Paradise?” this reporter chronicled Jeffrey Denning’s run-in with a watch-listed Saudi male named Anwar Al-XXXXX which occurred on October 16, 2006, at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Al-XXXXX had entered the country on falsified documents and slipped past U.S. Customs illegally. At the time, Denning didn’t know any of this. He only knew the man was acting suspiciously — he’d left a bag in the middle of a busy concourse. So in his capacity as an air marshal, Denning questioned the man who claimed he was a University of Arkansas student but that he did not speak English.
Denning requested a field interview. Headquarters granted the interview and determined the name Anwar Al-XXXXX matched a name on the terrorist watch list. Denning and an airport police officer guarded Al-XXXXX for the next few hours while DHS agents worked behind the scenes to figure out what to do next.
The Federal Air Marshal Service notified the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) about what was going on. JTTF is made up of homeland security agents, FBI agents, and local police officers, all of whom work together to deter and detect terror-related crimes. The theory behind JTTF is that by using the talents of multiple agencies — each coming at the threat with expertise in different arenas — the greatest results can be achieved.
JTTF tried getting an Arabic speaker to the scene but, according to Denning, “no fluent [Arabic] speaker was around.” JTTF tried getting the bomb-sniffing dogs over to the scene to examine Al-XXXXX’s bag but, according to Denning, the dogs were “tied up with something else.” So Denning and the airport police officer searched the bag.
In interviewing federal agents for this story last year, I learned that JTTF was working to get an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent to the scene. That’s because The 9/11 Commission Report determined that examining a terror suspect’s travel documents in a situation such as this one is critical. ICE agents are the only agents trained to examine such documents; air marshals are not.
Surely, now that alarm bells have been sounded inside the uppermost echelons of six U.S. federal agencies — DHS, TSA, FAMS, ICE, JTTF, FBI — and with a match hit on a terrorist watch list, Anwar Al-XXXXX would be under intense scrutiny and taken in for further questioning. At least in theory he would be.
Unfortunately, that proved to be only theory.
Denning explained what happened next: “They [i.e., DHS/JTTF and the airport police] couldn’t get an ICE agent to the scene so I was asked to examine [Al-XXXXX’s] travel documents. This struck me as odd because I have no training in examining travel documents. None of the Federal Air Marshals have received training that I’m aware of. Finally word came back from the MOC [Mission Operations Control]. They said, ‘we’ve been waiting on the FBI. We can’t get them to verify. Let him go.'”
Denning followed orders.
Watching Anwar Al-XXXXX pick up his bag and disappear into the throngs of travelers at Reagan National Airport, Denning told me that he thought to himself, “I seriously hope this guy doesn’t show up on the evening news.”
Jeffrey Denning was originally praised by the Federal Air Marshal Service for his work. He conducted surveillance on a man in an airport who turned out to be on the terrorist watch list. Denning was given an award. “I left FAM Service on good terms,” Denning explained, “but the reason I left was because the agency was grossly mismanaged at the expense of the traveling public. I felt I could better serve elsewhere.”
After leaving the Federal Air Marshal Service, Denning spoke out. Now, more than a year later, he’s the target of a federal investigation. Could the mob be right? Is revenge really best served cold?
When Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee asked DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff last week, “Are we targeting people because of their critique or criticism?” she should have also asked Secretary Chertoff if he was aware that his underlings appear to be running their federal agencies on principles that include revenge.