Terrorism 'zero tolerance' policy leads to hundreds of airport worker arrests

Wednesday, April 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft says the arrests of hundreds of airport workers on fraud and immigration charges illustrates the government's zero tolerance policy in its war on terrorism.

Federal officials said Tuesday they expected to arrest at least 138 employees at Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on charges that they lied about previous criminal convictions, used false Social Security numbers, or were in the country illegally.

An additional 10 workers were arrested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the U.S. Attorney's office in Baltimore said.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the government has arrested or indicted more than 450 employees at 14 airports, officials said.

The employees had security badges allowing them to bypass passenger screening checkpoints and enter secured areas of airports, including where airplanes are parked.

``Let me be clear. There will be zero tolerance of security breaches at our nation's airports,'' Ashcroft said in announcing the arrests at Dulles and National airports. ``The American people are being asked to put up with long lines and intrusive searches. Americans deserve the confidence of knowing that the individuals working in our airports are worthy of our trust.''

Those arrested Tuesday were mostly construction workers, janitors and food workers, though two baggage screeners were included, officials said.

None of those arrested had terrorist ties, but airline experts say the arrests highlighted a security gap that could have been used to plant a bomb on an airplane.

``It was pretty easy to get an airport job. All you had to do was fill out a work record that didn't have any major gaps,'' former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo said. ``It was very easily exploited.''

Justice officials said workers with illegally obtained security badges could be blackmailed into cooperating with terrorists.

``All of these individuals present a risk,'' U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said. ``We don't have information as to exactly what risks have occurred. We just know that the potential for harm is there.''

One of the four planes hijacked Sept. 11 took off from Dulles airport. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

Ashcroft said the arrests, which followed sealed indictments handed down 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 of up to $250,000 and illegal immigrants could be deported.

An official of a labor union that represents some airport employees and many immigrant workers said the government was not acting to improve airline security but instead was going after people who couldn't defend themselves.

``It's scapegoating,'' said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. ``It does absolutely nothing to enhance security or protect the traveling public. They have created a climate of fear in the immigrant community.''

McNulty said two of those arrested were employees of troubled Argenbright Security, which was fined $1 million in 2000 for failing to adequately check the backgrounds of its employees. The new Transportation Security Administration is removing Argenbright from airport security checkpoints and bringing in other companies.

``We expect within the next two weeks that there will not be any Argenbright contracts at any of the airports in this country,'' said John Magaw, undersecretary for transportation security.