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FBI questions man in air security breach

( 2003-10-19 11:00) (Agencies)

A college student who the FBI believes hid box cutters and other banned items aboard two Southwest Airlines planes had warned government officials he would try to bring forbidden articles onto commercial flights to expose holes in security.

A federal law enforcement official confirmed Saturday that investigators are interviewing Nathaniel T. Heatwole of Greensboro, N.C., to learn how he got through airport screeners while also carrying bleach, matches, modeling clay and notes detailing his intention to test security.

A Bush administration official said the suspected perpetrator last month sent the government an e-mail warning of his intention to conceal similar suspicious items on six planes and provided dates and locations for the plan.

Federal authorities "reviewed the correspondence and determined this individual did not pose an imminent threat to national security," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Heatwole, a 20-year-old junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, told the Greensboro News & Record he had been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the Southwest Airlines incidents Thursday night.

"I have a ton of stuff I'd like to say, but ... I have to work with government before I work with the media," Heatwole told the newspaper in an interview from his home in Damascus, Md.

Guilford is a Quaker college with a history of pacifism and civil disobedience that dates to the Civil War.

Heatwole is not a Quaker, but shares many of the tenets of their religion, including a belief in pacifism, according to a February 2002 interview with The Guilfordian, the campus newspaper.

Heatwole refused to register for the draft when he turned 18 as required by law, according to the newspaper. Instead, he returned a blank registration form to the Selective Service System along with a letter explaining his opposition.

"I wanted to let them hear the voice of dissent," he said, "just in case they were listening."

The suspect was identified through a database search that linked the bags found on the planes to the e-mail, the Transportation Security Administration said.

An FBI statement said legal proceedings were expected Monday in federal court in Baltimore. Government prosecutors still were trying to determine what charges they might bring.

Southwest Airlines maintenance workers found small plastic bags containing box cutters and other items in lavatory compartments on planes in New Orleans and Houston. Notes in the bags "indicated the items were intended to challenge Transportation Security Administration checkpoint security procedures," according to a statement from Southwest Airlines.

Each note also included precise information about where and when the items were placed on board the aircraft, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity. That information has not been made public, so it's unclear how long the items were aboard the planes.

The discovery triggered stepped-up inspections of the entire U.S. commercial air fleet - roughly 7,000 planes. By Friday night, after consulting with the FBI, the TSA rescinded the inspection order.

No other such bags were found in the inspection.

The aviation security system has undergone enormous changes since the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 19 hijackers used box cutters to take over four planes. Gaps remain, however. Government officials acknowledge X-ray machines can miss plastic explosives and box cutters. Airport workers who have access to planes are not screened, nor is much of the cargo that goes aboard commercial flights.

Undercover federal investigators who recently tested security were able to sneak weapons past screeners.

The modeling clay found aboard the Southwest planes was made to look like an explosive, while the bleach could have been used to demonstrate how a corrosive or dangerous liquid could be smuggled aboard a plane.

Al Aitken, a member of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance, said if someone can send the government an e-mail about testing the security system "and then actually do it, then you know the real bad guys can get the appropriate explosive components onto the airplanes for a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks."

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