Did The TSA & JetBlue Deny Travel For Looking Muslim During Ramadan? Nope

This past Thursday afternoon I began receiving emails alerting me to a disturbing blog post by Aditya Mukerjee regarding his being detained by the Transportation Security Administration then denied boarding of a flight by JetBlue.  Mr. Mukerjee’s story of being a Hindu mistaken for a Muslim, then singled out, separated and questioned for three hours is a horrendous tale.   I was initially approached by his supporters, and put in touch with him, to help spread his story … however … once I began researching the story, his detailed blog post began to unravel. The details I uncovered lead to this post.

 

On the 3rd of August 2013, Aditya Mukerjee arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport Terminal 5 to board JetBlue flight 323, a 12:08pm flight to Los Angeles.  His experience inspired him to write a blog post on the 22nd of August that went viral: Don’t Fly During Ramadan

 

The start of this story, as reported by Mr. Mukerjee in his post, remains undisputed.  At 10:40am, while standing in the security screening line, Mr. Mukerjee was handing his identification and boarding documents to a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Travel Document Checker when he was handed a slip which is used to track the length of security lines.  As Mr. Mukerjee approached the TSA screening area he chose to opt-out from the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanner screening at 11:08am, which is entirely his right, instead choosing to walk through a metal detector followed by being patted-down and tested for trace explosives.  Following a pat down by a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO), the Officer swabbed his gloves for Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) and the test alarmed as positive.   False positives with ETD are not uncommon.

 

From that point, Mr. Mukerjee’s version of what he encountered and the story told by multiple people from multiple security and law enforcement agencies and JetBlue diverge.

 

After the ETD swab alarmed as a positive alert for explosive trace detection, (keeping in mind that false positives with ETD are not uncommon), Mr. Mukerjee claims he was thought he was being selected for a “random check” when he was asked to step into a private room for screening (but we’ll get back to that).   Typically, a secondary ETD swab is done out in the open.  however this is where winding back the clock on what lead-up to this initial first conflict is useful …

 

… an interview with someone within the TSA, at JFK Terminal 5, revealed that Mr. Mukerjee appears to have been flagged by the Behaviour Detection Officer (BDO) while in line for what appeared to be unusual behaviours.  As the official Incident Report makes no mention of the BDO’s involvement it is impossible to assess what caught the Officer’s attention, but the TSA source indicates Mr. Mukerjee was already on someone’s radar before he chose to opt-out.

 

An interview with the aforementioned TSA employee confirmed initial TSO statements that Mr. Mukerjee became verbally aggressive when he was informed the ETD test would be repeated. Mr. Mukerjee contends that he was immediately asked to step into a private room for screening.   Both Mr. Mukerjee and the TSA are in agreement that a Supervisory Transportation Security Officer was brought into the situation when Mr. Mukerjee refused additional screening; as well the Port Authority Police were called because of Mr. Mukerjee behaviour as noted by multiple Transportation Security Officers and the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer involved.

 

It would appear that a series of events lead to Mr. Mukerjee initially being asked to step away from the screening checkpoint and enter a private screening room.     These events include Mr. Mukerjee becoming further agitated and aggressive after testing positive for explosives, as well as him repeatedly reaching for his not-yet-manually-searched bag.

 

Mr. Mukerjee contends he asked to leave the screening area and return to the pre-security section of the terminal, with the intention of simply stepping back in line and going through screening again, but was not allowed.  This is absolutely correct, at this time he was in limbo, he was not being detained, but he could not leave.  A person cannot simply leave the security area of any airport once they are on the airside but have not satisfactorily completed screening.  Once a person has passed through security, but is not cleared to fly and then chooses to leave, such as Mr. Mukerjee, s/he must be escorted out of the secure area (and usually the terminal).

 

Typically, a passenger exit from the airside of a terminal is not directly next to the screening checkpoint lane. Should a person who has not been cleared by security seek to leave, they may not co-mingle with anyone else who has been cleared for a variety of security reasons.

 

Mr. Mukerjee claims that, after asking for his backpack in an attempt to leave the screening area, he was told he could leave, with an escort, but his backpack must remain with the TSA.  However,multiple statements by TSA personnel reference Mr. Mukerjee repeatedly grabbing for his bag after he was told not to touch it.  When someone is acting unusual, alarms for explosives and then starts grabbing for their bag against instruction by security personnel, security and law enforcement pays attention.   Before Mr. Mukerjee’s bag would be allowed into the terminal — even with an escort to leave the terminal– it would need to be cleared.

 

As this point the Port Authority Police arrived at the security checkpoint and made contact with Mr. Mukerjee (it should be noted that while Mr. Mukerjee claims the New York City Police were involved, they were not and have no jurisdiction in the airport).  Mr. Mukerjee elected to continue with the TSA screening process, at which time the Port Authority Police assisted the TSA in escorting Mr. Mukerjee to a private screening room.

 

Once in the private screening area, Mr. Mukerjee was swabbed for explosives trace detection multiple times and those swabs were tested in multiple machines, by a Transportation Security Specialist – Explosives (TSS-E). Each time Mr. Mukerjee tested positive for trace elements of explosives.  While false positives are not unusual for ETD,  it is unusual a person and their items could fail so many times using different testing equipment.

 

During this process, the interviewing of Mr. Mukerjee began and his outward demeanor is noted continually, in nearly every person’s statements, as aggressive evasive, or both, in the official incident report.

 

Mr. Mukerjee was interviewed by multiple people, in the presence of multiple people.  During that time, official reports indicate that Mr. Mukerjee provided different answers to different people for the same questions – textbook suspicious behavior.   Among those to interview Mr. Mukerjee were multiple Transportation Security Officers, a Supervisory Transportation Security Officer, a Transportation Security Manager, a Transportation Security Specialist – Explosives, an Assistant Federal Security Director for Law Enforcement, a Lead Transportation Security Officer, Port Authority Police Officers, a Department of Homeland Security Special Agent, two agents assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force and a representative from JetBlue Corporate Security.

 

In Mr. Mukerjee’s post he weaves a fairly detailed story of how he was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), however the FBI was never called, never on scene nor made contact with Mr. Mukerjee. This is confirmed by not only the Incident Report, but sources within the TSA as well as by the FBI, which has no record of any of its Special Agent being involved in the incident.

 

After hours of intense questioning, Mr. Mukerjee claims the TSA was going to clear him to fly when JetBlue refused to let him fly that day, instead offering to book him on a flight the following day.   This is not entirely accurate.  The TSA had not yet made a determination on whether or not Mr. Mukerjee would be allowed to fly that day and, as a result, JetBlue informed him that he would not be allowed to fly on that day.

 

JetBlue’s Corporate Security, who had been aware of the situation and interviewed Mr. Mukerjee, also described him as aggressive in the official incident report.   The determination of the airline, on which JetBlue’s corporate communications cannot comment, is that Mr. Mukerjee could pose a problem in flight due to his highly agitated demeanor.   He was not viewed as a terrorist threat, but a potential risk similar to that of an intoxicated person on a flight … which typically results in a 24-hour “cooling-off period before a passenger is allowed back on an aircraft.

 

While Mr. Mukerjee states he was allowed to leave the room he was being held in at 2:20pm EST, multiple reports have him being escorted out of JFK’s Terminal 5 at 2:00pm.

 

What gets me in this story is this … Mr. Mukerjee believes he was targeted for looking like a Muslim flying during Ramadan.  However on any given day, the TSA and Port Authority Police at JFK interact with passengers departing on non-stop flights to and from Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Lagos, Istanbul, Jeddah, Riyadh, Casablanca, Amman and Tashkent.

 

On the 3rd of August, Mr. Mukerjee’s incident was the only one of its kind reported at JFK International with thousands of passengers who would have matched the profile of simply “looking Muslim” during Ramadan. The bold title of Don’t Fly During Ramadan seems patently out of touch with the situation Mr. Mukerjee found himself in.

 

As for Mr. Mukerjee’s belief that law enforcement searched his apartment, there is no evidence of this at all.  Again, since it was Port Authority Police – not NYPD – who were involved with Mr. Mukerjee at the airport, and since Port Authority Police have no jurisdiction outside Port Authority-operated facilities, a search of Mr. Mukerjee’s apartment in Manhattan would have required NYPD or Federal Law Enforcement involvement.   There are no independent sources within the TSA or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who can find any record of NYPD involvement – let alone a search of his apartment by federal authorities – and there is no incident report referencing any further action involving Mr. Mukerjee.

 

I know many people want to believe in TSA and national security conspiracies. The idea of a government collective creating a single story to keep one person down is intriguing. People will believe what they want, and yes, airport security has frequently had issues in stopping people, detaining people, missing legitimate threats and a complete lack of oversight for when things go wrong and legitimate complaints exist … but this incident does not appear to be one of those times.

 

The Department of Homeland Security simply is not organized enough to create one collaborative story against one person on the spot.  Coordinating more than a dozen official statements to essentially say the same thing, from people in different agencies and an airline also seems highly unlikely.

 

There are many “TSA Wronged Me” and “The Airline Wronged Me” stories out there every day. Most do not have the viral reach Mr. Mukerjee’s story has … however this story seems more like the memory of a scared young man, 19 days after he found himself in a frightening situation.  That situation, however, appears to be the result of his own actions and behavior – not government conspiracy.

 

As for people being up-in-arms about JetBlue denying him boarding for that day, the job of corporate security is to ensure its airline’s flights are safe. Not just safe from terrorism, but safe from people who may be belligerent to staff, who may be loud and disruptive, someone who may not be fully in control of their emotions and their judgment call is the final word on whether or not a passenger boards a flight.

 

If you’d like to draw your own conclusions, you can file a Freedom of Information Act request for the incident report, citing “Aditya Mukerjee, Detained 3-August-2013, JFK Airport, Terminal 5, TSA” with the Transportation Security Administration.

 

Happy Flying!

 

@flyingwithfish

 

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Comments

  1. One issue I see is that the ETD testing process is flawed. The machines alert on chemicals that are used in explosives. However, these chemicals are also present in many other common household items such as soaps and lotions. I remember hearing a story about an airport that had a particular soap in its restrooms that caused everyone who used it prior to security to alarm. Also, there is the threat of contamination because the TSA didn’t change their gloves or improperly handled the swabs.

    The TSA hasn’t caught any terrorists with the ETD testing. They have only hassled and humiliated many travelers because their testing method is flawed.

  2. People on the JTTF do run around saying they work for the FBI JTTF; it’s mostly those who don’t work for the FBI that seem to tell innocent people they work for the FBI JTTF. For many people who are relatively unfamiliar with how the US “security” establishment operates, it leaves the impression that the person works for the FBI even when they are employed by someone else beside the FBI.

    Even some contractors working for the FBI JTTF seem to try to play that game.

  3. Just a quick point of clarification… No one has a *right* to fly. It is like driving. It is a privilege. And that privilege can be revoked when one does not comport themselves in an appropriate manner. Heck, that privilege can be revoked for any reason whatsoever, or no reason at all, provided it is not a patently prohibited reason.

    And whether it is moral or immoral, right or wrong at a meta level… being detained and questioned in the name of national security is *not* a violation of any rights. It may be inconvenient or irritating, it may even feel violative. But within the confines of the law… no violation has occurred. Screaming “my rights have been violated!” is certainly sensationalist, but helps no one when you have no idea what your actual “rights” are. All of these stories sound like they could be prevented with a solid course in Civics and an Etiquette class.

  4. Flying as a passenger on a common carrier is not a privilege in the way that driving your own car is. This passenger bought a valid ticket, a contract for transport. No license is needed to be a passenger on a domestic flight. A license is needed to drive a car. Big difference, but the apologists for abusive government and corporate power often try to make the ridiculous argument above about “flying is a privilege like driving”.

  5. Here’s the thing. Saying he was “aggressive”, saying he was “beligerent”… it’s irrelevant. It may or may not be true that he was in fact aggressive or beligerent. It’s not a conspiracy to believe he wasn’t; that’s just a stock answer from law enforcement in nearly all cases where it’s a dispute. It’s been seen time and time again, and even when video disproves, the law enforcement officer will continue to insist that the suspect was, in fact, beligerent and aggressive.

  6. Regarding the “denied” glass of water. It doesn’t appear that the officials denied the guy water but just blew off his request:

    “”Is this a medical emergency? Are you going to pass out? Do we need to call an ambulance?” he asked, skeptically. His tone was almost mocking, conveying more scorn than actual concern or interest.
    “No,” I responded. I’m not sure why I said that. I was lightheaded enough that I certainly felt like I was going to pass out.
    “Are you diabetic?”
    “No,” I responded.
    Again he repeated the familiar refrain. “We’ll get you out of here in a few minutes.”

    If he felt like he was going to pass out, he should have said so. He said no, perhaps out of politeness or manhood and so he owns that. Yes, I know the authorities sometimes use the “we’ll get you out of here in a few minutes” to string people along, but he didn’t have to buy that spiel. He could have said: “I need a drink of water NOW or I may become ill!”

  7. Fish,

    That was precisely my point. Mr. Mukerjee’s account of being interviewed by the FBI might have been caused by “Hello, I’m XXXX with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, can I ask you some questions?” combined with a half-second badge flash after over an hour of being detained in a room. That’s more or less how things went in the George case. And in one other case I can think of. People leave the conversation thinking they talked to an FBI agent when it was just local JTTF guy(s).

    As for confusing PANYNJPD for NYPD, well . . . come on.

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