A Sacramento journalist is taken into custody by police and forced to destroy photos by an over-zealous National Guardsman. Apparently, the terrorists are indeed causing instability.
The Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 sighed as its wheels kissed the Los Angeles International Airport tarmac. Flight 1206 out of Sacramento taxied to the gate, and my fellow passengers and I released our white-knuckle grips on the foam-covered armrests of our seats. No one’s throat had been slit. We hadn’t flown into a skyscraper. We’d made it, safely, much to our collective relief.
It was 5:05 p.m. on Friday, October 12, and we had call to be apprehensive. The previous day, the FBI had placed the entire nation on high alert, based on “credible” information that Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden, was planning reprisal attacks on U.S. soil for the coming weekend. The bureau urged Americans to report any suspicious activity. Friday morning, armed troops from the California National Guard were deployed at Sacramento International Airport.
America, as we’ve been told over and over since September 11, is forever changed. Nowhere is this change more evident than in our approach to national security. Practically overnight, major metropolitan airports across the country have been turned into militarized zones crawling with armed soldiers and police. Their presence is designed to deter terrorists and provide us with a sense of security, but as I was about to discover, that security has come at a high price.
I’d purchased a roundtrip ticket from Sacramento International to LAX to observe firsthand the unprecedented measures being taken to combat terrorism. There’d been more than a little fear and paranoia in Sacramento and I expected to find more of the same in Los Angeles.
I didn’t expect to be ordered to destroy photographs by an irate National Guardsman. I didn’t expect the Los Angeles Police Department to confiscate and read the notes I’d taken on my trip. I didn’t expect to be questioned by the FBI and detained for nearly three hours for no probable cause.
I didn’t expect any of these things, but that’s what happened. As I followed my fellow passengers up the jetway and into the LAX terminal, I had no idea I was stepping onto the War on Terrorism’s first domestic battlefield, where, as in all wars, truth was about to become the first casualty.
Terminal 1 at LAX is usually jam-packed with people, but there were no friends or relatives waiting to greet loved ones at the gate. As part of the heightened security precautions, only ticketed passengers are permitted to pass through the metal detectors and into the boarding areas. That’s why the area between the security checkpoint and the aircraft is called the “sterile zone.” Everyone who has been allowed to enter the sterile zone has been checked out. Everyone is “clean.”
I checked the time of my return flight on the monitor at the gate and discovered that because of a ticketing error, I only had a 15-minute layover—barely enough time to walk down to the security checkpoint and back—to catch my return flight. In Sacramento, I’d taken photographs of Guard members, armed with M-16s and pistols, taking positions behind the personnel operating the metal detectors at the security checkpoints. I’d seen other passengers take photos. I figured I’d snap a few pictures of the LAX security checkpoint and board my return flight. I figured wrong.
As I reached the checkpoint, I saw that the four guardsmen were deployed in exactly the same fashion as in Sacramento, behind the metal detectors. I removed the small digital camera from the right breast pocket of my leather jacket and took several photographs of the armed citizen-soldiers. I had just turned to head back to the gate when a loud voice boomed at me from the direction of the checkpoint.
“Hey you! What are you doing?”
A California National Guardsman, a big guy with a buzz-cut dressed head-to-toe in camouflage army fatigues, was moving rapidly toward me. I froze as he approached. He came so close it seemed impossible he wasn’t touching me.
“Did you take my picture?” he asked angrily. “Did you take my picture?”
“I’m a journalist, working on a story about airport security,” I told him.
“You can’t take pictures here,” he said.
“Says who?” I asked.
“Says me!” he barked.
He moved next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder, so he could view the camera’s display screen. “You are going to show me the pictures you took, you are going to delete the pictures you took, and you are going to show me that they are deleted!” he breathed down my neck.
“This is a public space, I have every right to be here,” I said. “There are no signs that say you can’t take pictures here.”
“Either you delete the photos, or I’m taking you to a room, and you can talk to my superiors. You can talk to the FBI.”
Normally, I would have stood my ground. I would have talked to his superiors, the FBI. I was 99 percent certain that I had every right to take photographs of the California National Guard at the LAX checkpoint. Nothing I had read about the new security precautions, no one I had talked to, including other Guard members, had advised me otherwise.
But these are anything but normal times, and the slight shadow of doubt that had entered my mind, weighted by the intimidating behavior of the guardsman, caused me to make a questionable decision, at least from a journalistic viewpoint. I showed him the photos I had taken of the checkpoint, he objected to every one of them, and he ordered me to delete them. So I deleted them. I looked at the guardsman’s I.D. badge and wrote his name down.
“What are you doing!?” he screamed. By now, his face had visibly reddened. “Don’t you write my name down!!”
What strange universe had I entered? What was I supposed to do, cross his name out? Force myself to forget it? The guardsman’s anger seemed totally out of proportion to the situation. To put it bluntly, he scared the living hell out of me. Only the timely intervention of a female Los Angeles Police Officer smoothed the scene over. She asked to see my I.D., ascertained that my California Driver’s License was valid, and allowed me to proceed back into the terminal to catch my flight.
“Hey!” the guardsman yelled as I was departing. “Where’s your ticket?”
I pulled it out of my left breast pocket, where it had been in plain view during the entire encounter, and showed it to him from 10 feet away.
“Right here,” I said.
He didn’t ask to look at it more closely, to see if it was actually a valid ticket, so I left, beaten (I’d been forced to delete my photographs) but not broken—I was still going to catch my flight home.
Or so I thought. I reached the gate at the absolute last second and was permitted to board the plane. The flight was nearly full, and I took one of only two empty seats in the back. Several passengers chuckled at my hurried, flustered appearance. I began to furiously scribble in my reporter’s notebook, trying to capture all the details of what had just transpired before they faded from memory. The plane was on the verge of pulling out of the gate when an LAX Southwest Airlines employee—not a member of the plane’s crew—materialized in front of me.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to exit the aircraft,” he said.
I’d been on board no longer than three minutes. As I limply followed the Southwest employee out of the plane and up the jetway, I knew who would be waiting on the other side of the door.
Two LAPD police officers greeted me at the gate. The California National Guardsman was standing behind them. Officer Brennan, the same policewoman who had just checked my I.D., now informed me that passengers from both of my flights, the one into LAX and the one I had just been removed from, had complained about my “suspicious behavior.”
“Who complained?” I asked her.
“I can’t tell you that, sir,” she said.
“What suspicious behavior?” I asked.
“They said you were going through overhead compartments and writing things down.”
“I have one carry-on bag,” I said, indicating my backpack. “I placed it under the seat in front of me on both flights. I didn’t even touch an overhead compartment. And since when is writing in a notebook considered suspicious activity?”
“We’re going to have to detain you, sir.”
The guardsman smirked behind her.
“You both know I’m a journalist,” I said.
“Yeah, you said you were working on a story about airport security,” the guardsman said. “What do you want to do, give away our security positions to the enemy?” I stared at him incredulously as the second LAPD officer, Ramirez, confiscated my notebook.
“Do you have press credentials?” he asked.
Uh-oh. I’m a freelance writer. I don’t even carry a business card, just my California Driver’s License, my Social Security card, and a bunch of credit cards. For all they knew, I was Joe Q. Ticketed Passenger walking around the terminal taking notes and photographs, which, I was still 99 percent certain, was completely within my rights. “I don’t need press credentials to be in an airport,” I declared. “Give me back my notebook.”
Instead, Ramirez passed the notebook to Brennan, who leafed through it with the guardsman while Ramirez sternly advised me to “shut up” and “stop asking questions.” My handwriting is worse than a doctor’s, and Brennan thought I’d misspelled her name. She guffawed and elbowed the guardsman. He got an even bigger kick out of my initial description of him as “unarmed.” I hadn’t noted his gun until later.
“You got that wrong,” he said, smugly patting the pistol strapped to his side.
“Turn the page,” I said curtly.
My acquiescence was giving way to anger. I had followed the guardsman’s direct order to delete the photographs, against my better judgment. That should have placated him, in my opinion. I couldn’t help feeling that the guardsman and the LAPD were now harassing me for daring to put up any verbal resistance at all. Brennan’s explanation that I had been detained because unnamed persons had observed me acting suspiciously on both flights didn’t wash. “Who are these witnesses?” I kept asking. “What did I do?” She didn’t have to answer my questions, she said, because of “operational security,” and “new FAA regulations.” Then she took my ballpoint pen, “because it could be used as a weapon.”
She wasn’t being ironic. In fact, the idea that a pen could literally be used as a weapon had occurred to me before boarding Flight 1206. A month ago, such thoughts would have been considered unusual. Now, they constitute the mindset of the average American air traveler. I’d discovered as much earlier that day at Sacramento International.
I arrived at the airport at 11 a.m., just as several local TV crews were setting up their remote units in front of Terminal A. The California National Guard had deployed earlier in the morning, and it was big news. Reporters, photographers and TV camera operators were gathered on the terminal’s second level, observing ticketed passengers as they moved through the metal detectors. Occasionally, a guardsman shouldering an M-16 could be glimpsed behind the checkpoint, but otherwise, it was a dull photo opportunity. The only way to pass through the checkpoint and into the sterile zone, where the Guard was actually posted, was to buy a ticket.
It took 25 minutes to pass through the line at the Southwest Airlines counter. The customers waiting in line were clearly more jittery than usual; eye contact and conversations between strangers were rare; furtive, nervous glances were the norm. A healthcare executive from Kansas City who said he’d flown seven times since September 11 told me about two women he’d seen detained for periods of time in two separate airports. They’d been very upset, he said, but “we’re just going to have to get used to it.”
After purchasing the ticket, I waited in line at the security checkpoint, removing the laptop computer out of my backpack as instructed by a makeshift sign in the staging area. I also removed my camera and my tape recorder, just in case. The line ahead of me stalled for several minutes; passengers grumbled. When it was my turn, I placed my devices, along with the backpack, on the conveyor belt and passed through the checkpoint without setting off any alarms. I was in the sterile zone.
I proceeded to photograph the half-dozen or so guardsmen at the Sacramento checkpoint from approximately 30 feet away. I took several shots, then interviewed California Air National Guard Captain Jeff Wurm, the officer in charge of the detail. In civilian life, Wurm is a computer programmer and analyst. Now he’s commanding a squad on the frontlines of the War on Terror. Like all National Guardsmen currently patrolling the nation’s airports, he and the members of his unit had received two days FAA airport security training before being deployed.
“What we’re here for is security and deterrence,” Wurm said. Translation: The Guard were there to be seen, and the citizen-soldiers at Sacramento didn’t flinch when an occasional passerby snapped a photograph of the newly militarized checkpoint. Although a few people gaped at the camouflaged men carrying automatic weaponry in the airport, most thanked the Guard for being there.
During the half-hour I observed the checkpoint, I saw no obvious profiling of passengers going through. The California National Guard is supervising the process; all the screening at the checkpoints is still conducted by security personnel subcontracted by the airlines. A few passengers complained about being subjected to extra searching, usually because metal objects they didn’t know they had been carrying had set off the metal detector. “It’s like down at the jail,” said one man whose steel-shanked boots had set off the buzzer. He was allowed to continue after removing his boots and being thoroughly “wanded” with a hand-held metal detector. I was interviewing a man who had forgotten he was carrying a Buck knife when two Sacramento sheriff’s deputies, J. Coe and Doug Diamond, approached me. A passenger had reported a suspicious-looking man in a leather jacket hanging around the checkpoint. I explained that I was on assignment for the Sacramento News & Review.
“Oh, I like that paper,” said Deputy Coe.
I had showed them my driver’s license, and they had allowed me to continue doing what I was doing.
Fast-forward to LAX three hours later. As up to 10 LAPD officers guarded me near the Southwest Airlines Gate 12, I wondered what had gone wrong. No one could tell me what I’d done, and no one seemed to know what to do with me. They were waiting for some other authority, the FAA or the FBI, they weren’t sure, to show up. I’d been standing since the ordeal had begun; I took off my backpack and sat down on the floor behind the check-in counter in a yoga position as the police continued to stand around. I closed my eyes and began taking deep breaths. When I opened my eyes, a male passenger in the boarding area was staring at me like I was the dog-faced boy at the circus.
“I’m a journalist!” I yelled. His brow furrowed in concern, then he moved away. Other people in the boarding area were regarding me nervously. An LAPD sergeant, a burly Hispanic man, arrived. I stood up.
“You understand sir, this is a national security measure, and we’re going to have to check with the FAA to clear it,” he said. “You know they might not let you back on the airplane. You make people nervous.”
“How do I make people nervous?” I asked.
“By doing whatever you’re doing.”
“What am I doing?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, you’re going to stop doing it!”
“OK,” I said. “But what am I doing?” I wasn’t getting it. He began poking his index finger at me to emphasize the point.
“I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re going to stop doing it!”
I re-assumed my yoga position. Higher-ranking LAPD officers began arriving. Eventually, someone figured out that holding me prisoner right next to the entrance of the jetway was really making some of the passengers nervous. I was moved to an empty row of seats facing the window. My return flight was long-gone; the boarding area was beginning to fill up for the next flight. A couple of Arab-looking men in their 20s attempted to sit in the seats next to me.
“Can we sit here?” one of them asked a police officer. The cop looked at me. He looked at them. He looked back at me. A dim light flickered in his eyes, then went out. “No, you can’t,” he said, and they moved off.
I had been detained for more than an hour by the time Lieutenant Joseph Peyton, the LAPD duty incident commander, arrived. I complained that my notebook had been taken, and Peyton and another officer immediately returned it to me.
“Can I take notes now?” I asked Ramirez.
He didn’t say yes, but the rueful look on his face didn’t say no. I grabbed another pen out of my backpack. I was a journalist again.
Peyton explained that the officers at the scene were part of an additional detail that had been assigned to boost security at the LAPD’s airport substation after September 11. He apologized for my detainment, and said I would be free to go—as soon as I was cleared by the FBI. He admitted that the War on Terror was making everybody a little nervous. A few days previously, he’d watched two F-16 fighters escort a Canadian jumbo jet all the way into LAX. A passenger had set off a smoke detector in the jet’s restroom and become irate after a stewardess had reported him. Peyton, who normally works LAPD’s West Traffic division, was soft-spoken and reassuring, and the tension in the air dissipated somewhat. Then Angela Karp arrived on the scene.
Karp, the Southwest Airlines station manager for LAX, held what appeared to be a plane ticket. Instead, it was a credit receipt refunding my return fare to Sacramento. She said several passengers had complained that my behavior had made them nervous and because of that, Southwest Airlines was barring me from all flights out of LAX for the remainder of the evening.
“Can you tell me who said I made them nervous?” I asked.
“No sir, I cannot do that.”
“Can you tell me what my alleged behavior was?”
“No sir, I cannot do that.”
It was an issue of national security and the safety of the airline’s passengers. As a private business, Southwest had the right to refuse service to anyone, she said, and they were giving me the boot. She turned on her heel and was gone.
“What is it?” I asked Peyton. “My black leather jacket?”
“I hope not,” he said. “I have a black leather jacket.”
By the time the two plainclothes FBI agents arrived, I had been detained by the LAPD for nearly two hours. One agent was a husky guy in a khaki green Hawaiian shirt. The other agent, Anthony Gordon, had the grizzled, wizened demeanor of character actor Harry Dean Stanton. It didn’t take him long to evaluate the situation. Neither the guardsman nor the LAPD had the name of the passenger(s) who had complained about me, so no one could say if I had actually done anything suspicious. After questioning the guardsman and the LAPD, Gordon sat down beside me and quietly explained that the entire nation was on high alert. Everyone’s nerves were frayed. Taking the photographs of the checkpoint was completely legal. But the guardsman had served on the California National Guard’s Counter-Drug Task Force, and was worried that somehow drug dealers might recognize his photograph if it appeared in the paper.
“He does counter-drug work, that’s why he freaked on you,” Gordon said.
If the explanation was supposed to soothe, it didn’t. I’d been ordered to delete photographs, had my notebook confiscated and read by the police, and detained for three hours with no probable cause—all because the California National Guard had assigned a camera-shy counter-drug person to security duty at the airport? What the hell was he doing there? Gordon just shrugged. Case closed. I was free to go home.
But how? I had been banned from Southwest and the other airline in the terminal didn’t have any Sacramento flights. I wondered if I had been blackballed off all of the airlines as I trudged the quarter-mile to Terminal 7, where United Airlines, the only other carrier with a flight to Sacramento that night, was located. I booked a flight on the 10:05 shuttle, waited an hour in line at the security checkpoint and returned to Sacramento without further incident.
The following days were filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. I’d gone to the domestic frontlines of the War on Terrorism to observe the new security apparatus in action, and the new security apparatus had terminated my observation without cause. In my opinion, “truth” is a word that journalists bandy about too loosely, but there was no denying that my ability to get at the truth in this case had been severely injured. It seemed surreal, unbelievable, and possibly illegal. I also felt violated.
At the same time, when a half-dozen different cops tell you you’ve done something wrong for two hours straight, there’s a tendency to start believing them, even if you haven’t done anything. That shadow of a doubt regarding my rights as a citizen and a journalist in the so-called sterile zone kept telling me that considering the “war” was on, I should have known better, that I deserved to have my photographs erased, my notebook confiscated. The enormous pressure to “stand united” with the country in the War on Terrorism added to my feelings of guilt. But how could I stand united when the very freedoms we were supposedly defending from the terrorists were being stripped away before my eyes—not by terrorists, but by fellow Americans?
The answer was, I couldn’t. So I tried to find out what had really gone wrong at LAX. Lieutenant Colonel Terry Knight, public information officer for the California National Guard, was stunned when I informed him a guardsman had ordered me to erase photographs. “That doesn’t make sense,” Knight said via telephone from Washington, D.C. “That’s wrong.” But when told that the guardsman worked in counter-drug operations, Knight had an epiphany. “It’s understandable why he didn’t want his picture taken.”
“Should someone who doesn’t want their picture taken be working guard duty in such a public area?” I asked.
“They’re fine for that duty …” he began. Then he stopped and referred me to Sergeant Joe Barker, acting public information officer for the Counter-Drug Task Force, for further comment.
“I know this is real X-Files-sounding stuff, but you can’t print that gentleman’s name,” Barker said when reached at his Sacramento office. When asked what law prevented the SN&R from doing so, he backed off. “There’s nothing I can do to stop you from publishing his name and what he does, but it would definitely endanger his life.”
The Guard provides ancillary support to federal, state and local drug enforcement agencies working in California, particularly near the Mexican border area and in marijuana eradication programs. Because of “operational security,” Barker wouldn’t explain what the guardsman’s counter-drug duties were or how publishing his name or photograph might endanger his life, but the guardsman probably wasn’t making undercover buys. Barker was a little more specific when asked where the guardsman had gotten the idea he could force me to erase my film.
“He was following his FAA training,” Barker said, adding that details of the two-day FAA training course were classified because of “operational security.”
The training may be classified, but according to the FAA, the classes don’t instruct guardsmen to confiscate the film or notebooks of anyone, including journalists.
“No, he’s totally wrong,” said FAA spokesman Mike Ferguson. “You didn’t do anything illegal there.” The only photography restrictions in the sterile zone concern the privacy of passengers, not security personnel. Close-up photos of the X-ray monitors and of people having their luggage searched by hand are not permitted. Otherwise, Ferguson said, “You can shoot whatever you damn want.” By “you,” he meant anyone—journalist or private citizen.
Several days later, Barker reversed course. “It’s perfectly crystal clear that you can’t force someone to erase pictures that have already been taken,” he said, adding that he’d passed this information on to guardsmen at a recent FAA training session in San Francisco. “I can personally say that the people I gave the briefing to have been instructed to not erase photographs,” he said.
There’s a reason members of the Guard’s Counter-Drug Task Force were assigned to LAX, according to Nancy Castle, the airport’s director of public relations. The task force has some of the Guard’s “more seasoned members, the ones used to dealing with the public.” When told that the guardsman was afraid his cover might be blown, she pointed out that more than 100 local media outlets had recently been invited to interview, photograph and film the Guard during a visit by Governor Gray Davis, who was touting LAX’s new security precautions. No guardsman that she was aware of had asked that his picture not be taken.
Castle said there are no signs prohibiting photography posted in the sterile areas of LAX and that she has never heard of anyone having their film confiscated at the airport.
According to Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, no government agency has such authority. “There’s no law that permits anyone to summarily confiscate a camera or film or order the destruction of that film,” Francke said.
While Barker acknowledged that the guardsman was wrong to force the deletion of the photographs, he knew of no pending disciplinary action in the case. “If there was, I’m not sure we would release it,” he said.
Francke also said that the Guard and the LAPD may have violated a California statute designed to protect the “unpublished information” of journalists. The law, California Penal Code § 1524, prohibits judges from issuing search warrants for “notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes and other data of whatever sort not itself disseminated to the public through a medium of communication.”
“Clearly, they had no right to do what they did,” Francke said. “Under California Law, journalists are free from search and seizure directed at unpublished information.” He added that the guardsman and the LAPD officers also failed to comply with federal law, which states that the U.S. Attorney must exhaust all other means (such as issuing a subpoena) to obtain unpublished material before allowing a law enforcement agency to seize it without a warrant.
While now might not seem like the ideal time to pursue such a case, Francke said that in the long haul, it might be in the public’s best interest. “People caught up in war fervor and the opportunity to express solidarity with national security are probably going to see this story as a sign of reassurance—until they get caught with a camera in their bag or staring at a plainclothes policeman too long,” Francke said.
“If, as we all hope, this particular hijacking threat recedes and nerves return closer to normal, I do think people will maybe turn their minds back on and acquire some common sense.”