HOUSTON — A Jordanian man says his life has been thrown into turmoil since he was briefly detained at Hobby Airport last month, an incident that prompted airport security officials to re-evaluate their system.
Mohamed Ahwar Bataineh, 31, was flying to Atlanta for a truck-driving job on June 26 when airport screeners stopped him at the security checkpoint.
Here’s the first red flag. Everyone who has brought a laptop with them on a plane knows it has to be taken out and separated from other items for security screening. Finding the alarm clock, battery, and hollowed-out shoes simply heaps on more suspicion.
A Transportation Security Agency report, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, said Bataineh shook his head when screeners asked if he had a laptop computer in his baggage. But an X-ray machine detected a laptop and screeners also found an alarm clock with a battery taped to it. They also said Bataineh was wearing shoes they suspected had been “gutted out.”
Keystone Kops Alert: The screeners call the local police, who heave a sigh of relief when the clock works, and send him on his way.
But instead of alerting the FBI, the screeners called a Houston police officer to investigate Bataineh. Officer J.O. Reece examined Bataineh’s shoes, then put the battery in the clock and found that it functioned properly, said Reece’s attorney, Chad Hoffman.
Reece found no reason to detain Bataineh and he was allowed to enter the boarding area, over protests from the screeners, according to the TSA report.
But the TSA’s hands aren’t clean here, either:
Officials said the FBI has the primary responsibility for responding to suspected terrorist activities at airports, with agents stationed on site and a special squad positioned to respond immediately. But the TSA only notified the FBI two days after the incident involving Bataineh, FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said.
Since the incident, Bataineh said he’s lost his job and been connected to terrorism unfairly.
Well, he should have taken out his laptop, for starters. But there’s more:
Another TSA report obtained by the Chronicle states that, because of the incident, Bataineh was at least temporarily put on a list of terrorists, partly because he has “a direct relationship with a person of interest” on that list.
Federal officials won’t identify the “person of interest,” but law enforcement officials acknowledge that such a relationship does not necessarily mean Bataineh knows of that person’s possible terrorist activities.
And now for an impressive set of excuses:
Bataineh said the shoes had not been “gutted out,” but that he had simply removed the insoles because the shoes were old and worn. He added that he told the screeners he had taped the battery into the clock because he had lost the plastic cover for the battery compartment.
Still, the TSA said Bataineh now is on a watch list for special inspection at airports. Being on those lists could complicate life for Bataineh, who flies to Jordan to visit his wife when he can. He’s also been trying to bring his wife and child to the U.S. and has applied for American citizenship.
“This is crazy. This is stupid,” Bataineh said.
Bataineh said he lost his job with the Atlanta trucking company shortly after FBI agents questioned him for about three hours at the company’s offices. The agents later cleared him of any links to terrorism and called the airport incident “a non-event,” but he said they still have not returned his laptop.
The TSA and the Houston Police Department, meanwhile, are pointing fingers at each other.
The federal agency’s report blames Reece, but police officials say their officers are not authorized to prevent people from boarding airliners. Reece has since been transferred to a desk job and HPD has started an investigation.
The incident also led the TSA to call a June 29 meeting of agencies involved in airport security. The incident will be discussed at a meeting Wednesday, said Richard Fernandez, spokesman for the Houston Airport System.
Bataineh’s situation also prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Abran “Abe” Martinez, head of the regional anti-terrorism task force, to call the agencies involved “to make sure that nothing like this ever occurs again.”