WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) and other Democrats criticized federal authorities for prosecuting a 20-year-old college student who the FBI says acknowledged smuggling box cutters and other banned items onto commercial planes.
Nathaniel Heatwole of Damascus, Md., could spend up to 10 years in prison if convicted of taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft. According to an FBI affidavit, Heatwole told the Transportation Security Administration he carried the items on planes to alert authorities to holes in aviation security.
"I don't think he had criminal intent," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "I think what he was trying to do was to show how exposed we are and what our vulnerability was, and he tried to tell TSA -- he gave a trail to them. Maybe he should do some community service."
Rep. Ed Markey (search), D-Mass., agreed he should do community service with the TSA. Agency officials should listen to him "so they know exactly how to prevent a terrorist from doing the very same thing," Markey said.
Rep. John Mica (search), R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said prosecutors should concentrate on people who actually pose a threat.
"I think he shouldn't be the fall guy, but he did violate the law and there has to be consequences," Mica said.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, even if he's convicted, Heatwole could serve no prison time because he has no prior record and it would be difficult to prove intent to do harm.
According to TSA records, 1,018 people have been arrested since Feb. 19, 2002, for attempting to bring banned items onto planes. The agency doesn't have figures on how many were charged or convicted.
Heatwole hid bags containing the box cutters and other items on two Southwest Airlines planes. He sent the TSA an e-mail saying he had done so, but it was never passed on to the airline or the FBI to investigate. The result was the items stayed on the planes for nearly five weeks.
Many people believe the government's decision to prosecute Heatwole is "more to cover the fact that the government dropped the ball," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a Judiciary Committee hearing. He added that the security breach was "not one of the brightest things we've seen."