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College student admits planting box cutters on planes

A Southwest Airlines jet sits on the tarmac Friday at Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas.
A Southwest Airlines jet sits on the tarmac Friday at Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas.

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Airport Security
Acts of terror
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Department of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A 20-year-old North Carolina student has admitted placing box cutters and other suspicious materials aboard two Southwest Airlines planes, law enforcement sources told CNN Friday.

The admission, the sources said, came during questioning of the individual by federal authorities in Baltimore, Maryland.

In a written statement, FBI spokeswoman Cassandra Chandler said the individual questioned is "believed to be responsible for the matter involving box cutters and other items found on Southwest Airlines planes.

"Based on the investigation conducted thus far, this individual does not appear to pose any further threat to airline security," Chandler said.

"This investigation is continuing and is being conducted by FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces ... in coordination with the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland. Proceedings are anticipated this Monday in United States District Court in Baltimore."

The sources said the individual -- described as a male student of Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina -- was a passenger aboard the planes, and not an employee of the airline or airports. They said the individual is cooperating with officials, and they stressed he has not been arrested or detained.

The Transportation Security Administration said the individual was tracked down, in part, due to an e-mail sent to the TSA last month in which he mentioned items that were "linked" to the Thursday night discovery.

"TSA and the FBI have had this individual's activities under investigation for several months," the TSA said in a statement.

"He left a trail," said a Bush administration official, who added that the e-mail gives details of locations, times and places where contraband was put on the airplanes.

The items found aboard the two planes included box cutters, clay that resembled plastic explosives and bleach, sources familiar with the investigation said. The liquid was contained in suntan lotion bottles; the clay was inside Play-Doh containers.

The material was discovered in plastic bags in the bathrooms of the Southwest planes in New Orleans and Houston, during maintenance checks. The Houston flight originated in Austin, Texas; the New Orleans flight originated in Orlando, Florida.

Notes in each package "indicated the items were intended to challenge the TSA's checkpoint security procedures," a Southwest statement said.

The man claimed to have done this on other planes, not just the two on which items were found, the administration official said. However, no other items have been discovered.

Southwest Airlines said it searched its fleet of 385 aircraft and found no similar items.

The official said that in the e-mail the man characterized what he was doing as "civil disobedience," indicating he knew he was breaking the law but believed it was necessary to point out weaknesses in aviation security.

Security checks ordered

As a precautionary measure, the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA directed all commercial aircraft in the U.S. fleet be inspected by security personnel within a day.

"This does not appear to be a terrorist event, and there is no imminent threat," FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters in Houston. "I think it's safe to fly."

An administration source told CNN that one of the notes indicated that, while the TSA was doing a good job, the items still got onboard.

A Department of Homeland Security official said there will be a concerted investigation into how that was accomplished.

A General Accounting Office report on airport passenger screening last month found that weaknesses persist in screener performance. "Testing to date has shown weaknesses in screeners' ability to detect threat objects," the report said.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security sent out an alert that al Qaeda remains interested in "multiple attacks against targets in the U.S. involving commercial aircraft." (Full story)

The order requires pre-flight inspections be carried out by "aviation security personnel" and orders airlines to pay particular attention to bathrooms.

A federal law passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks requires that airlines perform pre-flight security inspections of every plane, but the law does not stipulate how or by whom the checks should be done.

Most airlines give the task to flight attendants and pilots, though airline security personnel and maintenance or cleaning crews sometimes do the checks, which involve sweeping the aircraft for prohibited items.

The seats, overhead bins and bathrooms are typically checked as part of the inspection.

The informational bulletin sent out to hundreds of thousands of local and state law enforcement professional and airports across the country October 10 was intended to encourage heightened security.

A spokesman for the agency told CNN that no new threat or new intelligence prompted the advisory and that it was almost identical to a bulletin sent out September 4.

CNN correspondents Kelli Arena, Jeanne Meserve, David Ensor and producers Terry Frieden and Beth Lewandowski contributed to this report.

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