Why punish pilot for pointing out safety flaws?

By Jonathan Gurwitz

San Antonio Express-News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Commercial pilot Chris Liu, center, with his wife Sandra Liu and his attorney Don Werno. Liu posted YouTube videos criticizing security at San Francisco International Airport.

associated press

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If you are Julian Assange and you put hundreds of thousands of classified documents on the Internet, you become a folk hero who is somehow beyond the reach of the U.S. government. But if you are a licensed commercial pilot who posts a handful of cell phone videos that show potential holes in airport security, that's another story.

According to a biography on his web site, Chris Liu is an Army veteran, a helicopter pilot who rose to the rank of captain before leaving the military to pursue a career in commercial aviation — first as an instructor, and ultimately as a pilot for a major airline. He volunteered for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, begun after 9/11, that trains and deputizes select pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit. After psychological and background checks, he was accepted.

Now Liu is in trouble with the government that only a few weeks ago entrusted him with the lives of airline passengers. On Dec. 2, six federal agents and sheriff's deputies arrived at his home outside Sacramento to confiscate his FFDO credentials and his government-issued handgun. The Transportation Security Administration suspended Liu. In a letter, the agency said he had violated the FFDO's rules for nondisclosure and standards of conduct.

How? In November, Liu anonymously posted video on YouTube, since removed, showing security weaknesses at San Francisco International Airport. While passengers and even flight crews endure body scans and pat downs, ground crews face limited screening.

"The doors, gates and other access points where they can access the tarmac are not being manned by TSA and certainly do not have the same metal detectors, body scanners, x-ray equipment, dogs or other security measures that the rest of us are all too painfully forced to undergo," Liu writes on his web site.

"The real problem is that ground crews can access the airport tarmac and any aircraft, without having to go through any level of immediate screening and can therefore bring anything they want onto a waiting aircraft, drugs and bombs included."

In 2007, 10 ground crew workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport were charged with smuggling millions of dollars worth of cocaine and heroin. Similar indictments were handed down against members of ground crews at Puerto Rico's Luis Munoz Marín International Airport in 2009 and at Miami International and Newark Liberty Airport in 2010.

Another individual familiar with airport security, who requested anonymity, told me this weakness also encompasses airport vendors. "The problem with airport security is that if all other weaknesses were addressed, then fortifying the (TSA) checkpoint makes sense. However, there remains 'the back door problem' — an industry term — in which persons enter the sterile area of the terminal without submitting to screening."

These aren't exactly state secrets. And Liu's videos merely show what's visible to thousands of people every day at airports around the nation. So why is he being punished?

TSA may have solid reasons for suspending Liu from the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, and the intimidating way it confiscated his credentials and weapon. Those reasons might even be unrelated to his YouTube video. The boilerplate of TSA's suspension letter doesn't provide any details.

But the punitive actions against Liu come as the Department of Homeland Security is trying to gin up support for its "see something, say something" campaign, an effort to encourage the public to share information that might thwart terrorist attacks.

The message seems to be: See something, say something — unless it highlights a security flaw at airports, unless it might actually help enhance aviation security and unless it proves embarrassing to the U.S. government. Julian Assange must surely be having a hearty laugh.

e-mail: jgurwitz@express-news.net

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