Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 29, 2013

We can do better

Filed under: Aviation Security,General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 29, 2013

Today’s post is written by Max Geron, a law enforcement official I work with occasionally.


Atlantic correspondent James Fallows wrote the other day about the lawsuit filed by Shoshana Hebshi, an American citizen who, according to her complaint, was a passenger on a Frontier Airlines flight on September 11, 2011.

Another passenger(s) reported that Hebshi and two other passengers, who the reporting passenger didn’t know, “looked suspicious” or were “acting suspicious.”

Hebshi described how she was arrested and forcibly removed from the plane, made to submit to a strip search and several hours of detention and interrogation. According to a complaint filed by the ACLU, the FBI has since publicly stated that Ms. Hebshi was not involved in any suspicious activity.

The question I pose to homeland security leaders at all levels and the enterprise as a whole is: Can we not do better than this?

The Hebshi incident is an example of the lingering effects of terrorism, and these effects are not restricted to air travel.

First comes the loss of infrastructure and loss of life. What subsequently follows is the loss of peace of mind and consequently the loss of freedoms.

I understand the mandate to be cautious. I’ve done that. I’ve erred on the side of caution in the performance of public safety. But just as in the case of police chases where — in essence — the courts said “Law Enforcement, you are the experts and you should know better when to terminate a pursuit for the safety of others,” so too do I see us needing to say to our homeland security enterprise that “Sorry, it’s 9/11 and everyone’s pretty jumpy” is not a valid reason for depriving someone of their civil liberties and subjecting them to a humiliating strip search.

Consider the security checks Shoshana Hebshi had already gone through and the fact that this wasn’t another case of a traveler making a scene at a TSA checkpoint. In this instance the authorities came to her well after she had been cleared for boarding and was, according to her, minding her own business.

The most glaring fact is she was never charged nor was she even hinted at having done anything wrong.

So how do we do both? How do we maintain the requisite level of protection from the terrorists while still maintaining civil liberties and dignity?  How do we instill in our people, the “do-ers” of homeland security, a different or perhaps a more focused set of values? Values that say while there may be a threat and we must investigate, we equally need to be discriminating and unwavering in the protection of our citizens’ rights and dignity.

Consider President Obama’s inaugural speech on January 21, 2013. He said, “We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity….” [Emphasis added]

So where do we begin?

First of all ask yourself, how well do you know your personnel and what their values are?  How would they have handled a similar situation?

I would suggest that you engage your personnel in conversations and ask them how they would handle situations such as these. You may be surprised by their answers.

Secondly, it’s imperative that your organization and you communicate your values to your agents and employees. Do not expect them to get it by osmosis. We all need to be reminded, time-to-time of what’s important.

That leads me to my final suggestion. Make these conversations or interactions a regular part of your leadership legacy.   Our decisions and our actions form our legacy, the same is true for our organizations. I submit that the more we can do that, the less often interactions like those described by Ms. Hebshi will occur.

However we do it — whether with training on values-based decision making, procedural means, hiring criteria, or some other way — we should all agree that it come sooner rather than later.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 29, 2013 @ 9:52 am

So what was the activity found to be suspicious? What was the basis of determining the credibility of the passenger who reported the incident and were they interviewed before or after reporting or after landing?

In other words what was the basis for determining probable cause for the detention?

Comment by Max G.

January 30, 2013 @ 12:28 am

According to the AP, “…the crew reported that two people were spending “an extraordinarily long time” in a bathroom,”

According to Ms. Hebshi’s Blog: “…someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity.” and referring to a statement by an agent to her “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.”

Finally according to the suit filed: “…some flight attendants and passengers noticed that the two men
seated in Ms. Hebshi’s row were acting in a way that they considered to be suspicious.
Specifically, these flight attendants and passengers alleged that the men went to the restroom
around the same time and each spent ten, fifteen or twenty minutes there. Some passengers and
flight attendants also reported that the men were standing in the aisle for long periods.”

I have seen nothing from the FBI or other agencies.

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