BALTIMORE – A college student who allegedly hid box cutters (search) and other banned items on four airliners to expose weaknesses in U.S. security was charged with a federal crime Monday, and a prosecutor said he committed a "very serious and foolish action."
The banned items were not discovered on two of the planes until a month after Nathaniel Heatwole (search), 20, had alerted authorities about his scheme via e-mail. He was charged Monday with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft, then released without bail for a preliminary hearing Nov. 10.
On Sept. 15, federal authorities received an e-mail from Heatwole saying he had "information regarding six security breaches" at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14, according to an FBI affidavit.
Objects aboard Southwest Airlines (search) planes that landed in New Orleans and Houston were not found until Thursday.
The discovery triggered stepped-up inspections of the entire U.S. commercial air fleet -- roughly 7,000 planes. But after consulting with the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration (search) rescinded the inspection order and no other suspicious bags were found.
According to authorities, Heatwole told federal agents he went through normal security procedures at airports in Baltimore and Raleigh-Durham. Once aboard, he said, he hid the banned items in compartments in the planes' rear lavatories.
Heatwole told authorities that he left packages on four of the six planes, according to U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio. Other packages were found on April 13 and April 14 in planes in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., but it was unclear when they were planted.
The TSA, which received Heatwole's e-mail, did not send it to the FBI until last Friday. FBI agents then located Heatwole and interviewed him.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, whose department includes TSA, said officials "will go back and look at our protocol" for handling such e-mails. He said that the agency gets a high volume of e-mails about possible threats and that officials decided that Heatwole "wasn't an imminent threat."
The e-mail provided details of where the plastic bags were hidden -- right down to the exact dates and flight numbers -- and even provided Heatwole's name and telephone number.
The charge against Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., carries up to 10 years in prison.
Defense attorney Charles Leeper told U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey that it was Heatwole's "sincere desire to return to college and attend classes." Leeper and Heatwole's family would not comment after the hearing.
Gauvey set a number of conditions for Heatwole's release. Among other things, he must not enter any airport or board any airplane.
According to an FBI affidavit, Heatwole's signed e-mail "stated that he was aware his actions were against the law and that he was aware of the potential consequences for his actions, and that his actions were an `act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public."'
However, DiBiagio said Heatwole's conduct "was not a prank. This was not poor judgment. ... It was not a test. It was not a civil action. It was a very serious and foolish action."
Deputy TSA Administrator Stephen McHale said Monday's court action "makes clear that renegade acts to probe airport security for whatever reason will not be tolerated, pure and simple."
"Amateur testing of our systems do not show us in any way our flaws," McHale said. "We know where the vulnerabilities are and we are testing them. ... This does not help."
Guilford is a Quaker college with a history of pacifism and civil disobedience that dates to the Civil War. Heatwole is not a Quaker but shares many of the tenets of the faith, including a belief in pacifism, according to a February 2002 interview with The Guilfordian, the campus newspaper.
The student, a double-major in political science and physics, refused to register for the draft when he turned 18 as required by law, according to the interview. Instead, he returned a blank registration form to the Selective Service System with a letter explaining his opposition.
The FBI affidavit, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, said Heatwole breached security at Raleigh-Durham airport on Sept. 12 -- the day after the two-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He did it again Sept. 14 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
His bags contained box cutters, modeling clay made to look like plastic explosives, matches and bleach hidden in sunscreen bottles, the affidavit said. Inside were notes with details about when and where the items were carried aboard. They were signed "3891925," which is the reverse of Heatwole's birthday: 5/29/1983.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 hijackers used box cutters to take over four airliners, box cutters and bleach are among the items that cannot be carried onto planes.