TSA's lapses show weakness of air safety

In a court of public opinion, Nathaniel Heatwole would not only be acquitted of any charges resulting from his breach of airport security, but he would also have a monument erected in his honor.

Heatwole is the 20-year-old college student who put banned items, including box cutters, on airplanes and then sent an e-mail to the Transportation Security Administration telling them what he had done.

Columnists, commentators and editorial writers have lauded Heatwole for exposing the soft underbelly of the new federal agency that was supposed to make air travel safe in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Readers of the Daily News in New York overwhelmingly expressed their support for Heatwole's escapades and chided the federal government for pursuing criminal charges against him.

Heatwole wasn't planning to hijack a plane. He was trying to make a point. In doing so, he broke the law.

If the college student's actions had been motivated by sinister aims, the world would be calling for his head. So why is what he did OK if the point was only to embarrass the agency in charge of beefed-up airport security?

In all likelihood, Heatwole's punishment -- if he is found guilty of any of the pending charges -- won't be severe.

But the government we expect to keep us safe is right to pursue the letter of the law. How is anyone to distinguish between an intended prank and an attempt to kill innocent victims?

What Heatwole did, however, and how the TSA responded shows there are still big problems within the agencies responsible for our safety, and the biggest problem continues, apparently, to be communication.

Remember the aftermath of 9-11 when we learned top intelligence-gathering organizations of our government had pertinent information about a pending terrorist attack -- information that wasn't properly investigated nor shared with other agencies?

Heatwole sent an e-mail to the TSA after he put box cutters, bleach and other prohibited items aboard planes at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14.

The TSA didn't act on that information until more than a month had passed.

The TSA's excuse was that it receives thousands of pieces of information daily and did not consider Heatwole's e-mail -- which included his name, address and telephone number -- as particularly threatening.

That sounds much too familiar for comfort.