What’s an airport security guard to do?

There may be some doubt in his or her mind after recent events.

On Tuesday, security guards at Washington’s Reagan National Airport forced U.S. Rep. John Dingell to strip to his underwear before boarding a flight to Detroit. The guards at the Northwest Airlines terminal did not believe the 75-year-old congressman’s explanation about his metal hip, which triggered the metal detector mechanism.

“They felt me up and down like a prize steer,” Dingell, D-Mich., told the Associated Press. “I was very nice, but I probably showed I was displeased.”

This follows the Christmas Day case of an Arab-American Secret Service agent who was removed from an American Airlines flight from Baltimore to Texas, where he was headed to help protect President Bush.

The airline’s reports on the incident indicate that the discovery of a Middle Eastern history book in the officer’s carry-on luggage raised concern. Then, paperwork verifying his authorization to carry a firearm was not completed to the satisfaction of the captain, and the agent was removed from the flight.

In both cases, high-ranking federal officials quickly jumped to the defense of the passengers who felt they had been wronged. President Bush, upon hearing of the incident involving the Secret Service agent, immediately professed if the agent “was treated that way because of his ethnicity, that will make me madder than heck.”

There is no gray area in that statement, and Bush didn’t express any support of the security officials who detained someone carrying a firearm with questionable paperwork.

Dingell, meanwhile, immediately sought the help of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. The congressman asked Mineta to determine whether he had been treated differently than other passengers in his situation.

If you’re a member of airport security, what message do these federal challenges to your actions send? You believe that you are doing your job, and making your decisions based on a better-safe-than-sorry stance. The result? The president and the transportation secretary jump to the defense of their fellow federal employees and elected officials.

So now what do you do if you’re a security officer? It has to be in the back of your mind that if the passenger who seems to have failed standard security checks is a person of some influence, you could find yourself scrutinized and criticized by authority figures.

The Secret Service agent’s ethnicity was unquestionably a factor in increased scrutiny of him by the crew. In light of the fact that all 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were of Arab descent, security officials would be daft to ignore an armed person of Arab ethnicity whose paperwork did not seem to be in order.

It turns out that the agent had filled out forms required for carrying firearms for an earlier flight. But after that flight was cancelled, an American Airlines employee helping to place him on an alternate flight was unable to find blank forms, the agent’s lawyers said, and instead crossed out the flight and seat numbers on the original form. The pilot’s report said that the forms were unreadable, and missing information.

Most importantly, the president and a member of his cabinet have left a shred of doubt and question in the minds of security officials about whether a take-no-chances approach is really what the leadership wants. That fact could prove to be very dangerous down the line, and the president and other federal officials should make it crystal clear that they support and appreciate the security officers’ insistence on making sure people are who they say they are.

America can’t afford to have its airport security officials wondering about someone’s status while metal detectors are going off.

Mr. Tom Mitsoff is a daily newspaper editor and syndicated editorial columnist. His web address is http://www.tommitsoff.com.

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