Plane Box Cutter Stunt Worthy of Prosecution?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, October 21, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Whistleblower, criminal, or both? Twenty-year-old college student Nathaniel Heatwole (search) warned the feds weeks ago that he planted box cutters on planes just to show it could be done.

He has been charged and released and the feds say he isn't a real threat. Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (search) joins me now from Capitol Hill to talk about this incident. Congressman, the big question — should box cutter boy be sitting in jail at this very moment?

REP. TOM DAVIS (R) VIRGINIA: I'm not sure he is in jail. I think he is out on bail. But we probably ought to sentence him to work for the TSA (search) for a few months.

GIBSON: Well, no, should he be in jail? I know he's been released. The judge allowed him out on his own recognizance. And a lot of us are scratching our heads. For instance, if he wasn't a white kid from Damascus, Maryland, if he happened to be a Middle Eastern kid from, let's say, Michigan, wouldn't he be in jail?

DAVIS: No, I don't think so. Hopefully justice is blind on these issues. I don't think he meant any harm. He is a young kid. But you don't want a nation of vigilantes running around testing things, smuggling box cutters and guns.

GIBSON: Congressman, I don't want you and me to get into an argument about this. But how many weeks were those box cutters sitting on the Southwest Airliner planes?

DAVIS: They were sitting there five weeks.

GIBSON: Okay. Five weeks. Any number of people could have discovered them and decided it was time to make their move. It's inherently a very dangerous situation. The feds have charged him. Why is he out on his own recognizance?

DAVIS: I don't think he is a threat to society. I don't think he is a danger at all. The judge is smart to let him out. Everybody knows where he is.

GIBSON: Wait a minute. Do you think it's really because he is not a danger to society or the judge and, for that matter, the TSA and the prosecutors don't want his lawyers screaming from the roof top, “Hey, my guy got this stuff through their system. Their system is awful, and they're punishing him for demonstrating how bad it is?”

DAVIS: There may be some of that as well. This is not the first vulnerability we've seen in the system. This is a culmination of a lot of things. As you said, they have been there five weeks and he wrote them a letter telling them it was there and it still took them five weeks to find it.

GIBSON: I get the feeling — I'm in planes all the time. Believe me, I don't think this is funny at all. And I think some people think that this kid is a hero for getting these box cutters, bleach and explosives past airport security.

DAVIS: Well, I don't think he is a hero, either. And, again, you don't want to encourage everybody in the world to take box cutters on planes and to test this. So, we have systems that are constantly doing this… But I think it is appropriate they handle this gingerly. It is an embarrassment to the TSA that he was able to do this. And I think it is handled appropriately right now. I'm not sure how it will eventually be resolved. Again, I suggest you make him work for TSA for a few months.

GIBSON: Well, that may be a proper punishment, and certainly we know of cases where crooks have gone to work for the feds to show them how it is done.

DAVIS: Right.

GIBSON: And fair enough. But he has been charged. He has a federal prosecutor breathing down his neck who wants to put him in jail. And if a federal prosecutor wants to put him in jail and thinks it is that serious, why is he out walking around?

DAVIS: Because, you know, bail is based on — are they going to come to trial or aren't they going to come to trial? I don't think this guy is a flight risk at all. I don't think he is a danger to society.

GIBSON: Maybe he just hasn't figured out what he is facing. Once he does, I mean, unless somebody is telling him, “You are going to beat this rap. Everybody is going to regard you as a hero for showing the holes in the system.” If he figures out what he's facing, and it is likely he will be convicted because he did do it and admits it, maybe he will be a flight risk.

DAVIS: I don't think so. You know, he's got ties. He's in school, he's got his future ahead of him.

GIBSON: Congressman, what happened to our zero tolerance for terrorism?

DAVIS: You know, they didn't catch him. In the sense, he sent them a note basically daring them to do it. It's a very embarrassing situation for the government, I think they need to be careful how they handle this.

GIBSON: Yes. Congressman Tom Davis wants him to be careful. I'd like to have him be extra careful and put this kid in the slammer so he can't try this stunt again. Congressman, thanks very much.

DAVIS: Thank you.

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