Nearly 100 workers arrested in security raids at airports

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Authorities arrested close to 100 workers Tuesday at airports serving the nation's capital on charges they lied to obtain security badges that gave them broad access to sensitive areas.

Those arrested included construction workers, janitors, food workers and at least two baggage screeners.

Federal officials said that by day's end, or perhaps today, they expected to have arrested at least 138 employees in a sweep called "Fly Trap" at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

At least one employee arrested already had been deported from the United States but illegally returned and obtained an airport job, authorities said. They said those arrested included at least one baggage screener each at Reagan and Dulles airports.

Ten other arrests -- also on charges of immigration violations and falsified employment applications -- occurred at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Seven people there had failed to disclose prior felony convictions, prosecutors said.

Reagan National airport is closest to the Pentagon, struck Sept. 11 by American Airlines Flight 77, which took off from Dulles with five hijackers aboard. That crash killed 189 people on the plane and inside the military headquarters building in Washington's Virginia suburbs.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the arrests, which followed sealed indictments issued last week by a federal grand jury, "should be a wake-up call for every airport in America." People arrested face up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000, and immigrants who were caught without proper documentation could be deported.

'Zero tolerance'

"Let me be clear," Ashcroft said. "There will be zero tolerance of security breaches at our nation's airports."

U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty described Tuesday's raids as an "anti-terrorism initiative" but said authorities have "no evidence at this point of any connection of these individuals to any terrorist organizations."

McNulty also said authorities learned during the preceding weeks that some of those arrested Tuesday improperly had access to sensitive airport areas. Authorities did not monitor or restrict their movements in any way for fear of undermining the investigation, he said.

All but one person arrested by late Tuesday afternoon had been taken at the airports.

Safer airports

"We were somewhat alarmed by the large number of people who lied on their security applications," McNulty said. He said the arrests meant "northern Virginia's two major airports are safer places."

Although the arrests targeted mostly construction workers, janitors and food workers, who normally don't go near airplanes, Justice officials defended the arrests as necessary. They said workers with illegally obtained security badges could be blackmailed into cooperating with terrorists.

The government also said improper procedures at many of the nation's airports allow any employee with a security badge into the most sensitive areas, such as hangars or baggage areas, where someone could damage a plane or plant a bomb. Experts said airports should grant access more narrowly, depending on where employees need to work.

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