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Attorneys for Secret Service Agent Thrown off Flight Address Press

Aired January 3, 2002 - 12:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Daryn, we are going to go live now to that news conference by the attorneys for a Secret Service agent of Middle Eastern descent who was thrown off an American Airlines flight.

This is one of the agent's attorneys, John Relman.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN RELMAN, ATTORNEY: Two ground rules I need to lay out at this time: The first is, we are not authorized to release the name of our client at this time. The second point I wish to make is that our client is not here, as you can see. He is on a security detail at this time and is not available for comment or to appear.

The facts that you'll hear today are facts that have been reported to the Secret Service. In effect, these are the facts that have been presented to the Secret Service and the Secret Service is evaluating.

There is apparently an investigation going on right now. We are not privy to any results of that investigation. We do not know where it stands. The only thing that we know is that an investigation is going on right now.

You will hear also in some detail today that the key points about what we believe happened center on the fact that this Secret Service agent was traveling with his Secret Service identification, with his badge and with his photo ID. He cooperated at all times with everything asked of him. He followed all procedures. He acted in a cool and professional manner throughout. He was prepared to cooperate and provide the relevant telephone numbers and information about supervisors and any individual who American Airlines wanted or the pilot wanted to confirm that he was a Secret Service agent.

He was traveling with a weapon. He followed all procedures for letting everyone involved know, including security officers, that he was traveling with that weapon.

The only reason why he wasn't allowed on that plane was because, we believe and he believes, he is an American of Arab descent. Pure and simple, this is a case of discrimination.

We are not here -- our agent is not out to take any kind of punitive measure against anyone. His goal here is to resolve this in a peaceful and in a cooperative manner with American Airlines. No decision has been made about filing any kind of a lawsuit. All options are open, but that is not what we are here about today.

His goal is to resolve this with American Airlines. We would like to see this worked out, but again, our hand was forced because information has come out that is inaccurate, and we want that information that is accurate to come out.

I want to read a statement from the agent. We passed it around, but I want to read it, and then I will turn this over to Christy Lopez to take you through our client's account of what happened.

Our agent states the following, as of this morning, quote: "It has never been my desire to make this incident personal. This case is only about the facts. I love my job, and I want to thank my fellow agents for all of their support. God bless America."

Christy?

CHRISTY LOPEZ, ATTORNEY: Thank you, John.

Thank you all for coming today.

I just want to reiterate, because our client feels so strongly about it, that he had hoped to resolve this matter without this much publicity, and he still hopes to amicably resolve this with American. His interest is simply in seeing that procedures are put in place so that he and other similarly situated do not have to go through this sort of ordeal unnecessarily in the future.

As John said, I don't think there's any doubt that this incident would not have occurred if this agent was not an American of Arab descent. We feel that the pilot was unable to see past the agent's ethnicity and that his biased and stereotyped view made innocuous and innocent facts seem suspicious in his eyes.

In an attempt to excuse this behavior, it appears that there are post hoc rationalizations being distributed to justify the captain's actions. These excuses simply don't hold water.

It was the pilot who was rude, unprofessional and demeaning, as I will explain further. He treated an upstanding law enforcement agent as a second-class citizen simply because of his apparent Arab descent. It was the pilot who refused to accept that this gentleman was who he said he was, despite the fact that the agent had valid credentials and that those credentials were confirmed by three separate law enforcement officers during this time period.

I'd like to tell you just a little bit about this agent's background. He's worked his entire life in federal law enforcement, his entire professional life. He's been with the Secret Service for seven years. He's married. He has two children. He is an American citizen of Arab descent.

After September 11th, he was immediately detailed for three months to the FBI, where he was on the frontlines in the war against terrorism until the end of December. He received an award from the Secret Service for this work with the FBI, and according to that award, his -- this is a quote -- "contributions to the investigation were unique and significant. His efforts are in the best tradition of this service and are worthy of recognition and commendation."

I think his current assignment to an elite division of the Secret Service is further evidence of his stellar record serving his country. He's been with the Secret Service, as I said, for seven years and, during that time, has flown hundreds of flights while armed. He's never had any types of problems before, never been refused service. He has an unblemished record and has received numerous rewards in the past year alone for his service.

The events of that day are as follows: He arrived at the airport at approximately 2:45 for a 3:45 flight on December 25, 2001. He was scheduled to fly in an official capacity to Waco, Texas, and he had bought the ticket through the government travel agency, on the government contract carrier, American Airlines. His tickets actually indicated that they were government issued.

He followed all normal procedures during the entire security process. As is the complete normal procedure, he filled out the forms authorizing him to fly armed as a federal agent and had a Maryland Transportation Authority police officer escort him through security.

That MTA officer checked the agent's Secret Service credentials, which include a badge and a picture ID, and confirmed that they were valid credentials. This process was repeated two additional times during this day, which meant that he had his credentials identified, verified, by three separate law enforcement officials.

The agent boarded the initial flight, 1191, with no problems. He was introduced to the captain and the copilot, as is the normal procedure, and he took his seat.

Due to mechanical difficulties, all the passengers of that flight had to deplane and attempt to board another flight at a nearby gate, to Dallas, which was flight 363. The agent approached the gate for flight 363, identified himself again as an agent, and displayed his credentials.

Unfortunately, the American Airlines agent at that gate had no blank forms that he needed to fill out, so the American Airlines agent decided to use one of the forms that he already had and simply crossed out the airport flight and seat numbers and wrote in the new flight and seat numbers. Thus, the change to the form was made by an American Airlines employee.

Moreover, there's nothing magical about these forms. These agents were available throughout this time period and the pilot could have asked them any questions he had about the forms. The pilot could have asked this agent any questions he had about the forms.

As per normal procedure, the agent again boarded this new flight, 363, was introduced to this captain, and gave the captain his paperwork and took his seat.

Soon after he took his seat, an American Airlines employee asked the agent, as well as a few other passengers, including another person who appeared to be of Indian or Pakistani descent, to exit the plane and undergo additional security screening.

The agent did as he directed, informed the persons at the gate that he was, in fact, an armed agent, and informed the flight attendant, as he was leaving the plane, that he had left some of his belonging in his seat and that he would be back. He took his carry-on with him, but left his jacket and a few personal items on the seat and told the flight attendant that he would be right back.

Apparently, during this time, according to a passenger with whom we have spoken, who was in the seat next to the agent, the flight attendant went back to the agent's seat, asked the passenger to cover her and rifled through the agent's belongings.

She found a book, and this book -- no American should be required to justify their choice of personal reading material, but nevertheless it is worth noting that this book was in English. It was not in Arabic writing, as has been reported. This agent does, in fact, speak Arabic, but neither reads nor writes it. It's a Middle East history book of the college-text type, and the agent bought it on Amazon.com.

According to the passenger sitting next to the client, the agent did nothing that he found suspicious. Rather, the flight attendant's behavior started to make him uncomfortable and suspicious. He believes that there was nothing about the agent that made him susceptible to being singled out. There's nothing he can point to other than the agent's ethnicity. He found that the agent seemed confident and looked him right in the eye when he sat down.

After deplaning for the additional security, as he was instructed, the agent returned to the plane and was soon escorted by -- approached, excuse me -- by an American Airlines employee that asked that he exit the plane and fill out a new form, as per the captain's request. As he left the plane, the agent saw the captain go into the cockpit and lock the door behind him.

Outside the plane, the agent went to the counter and, once again, provided his credentials. An hour and a half ordeal then ensued. The pilot appeared and immediately asked for the name of the agent's SAC, special agent in charge, which the agent immediately provided.

The pilot at no time made any attempt to contact this SAC and would not let the agent provide him with a number of the White House switchboard, an independently verifiable number that would have directed the pilot to the person that could have verified the agent's identity.

We know that, later on, a corporate security officer for American was able to identify the agent's identity in less than five minutes, using the numbers that the agent gave him. At this point, another MTA officer verified the agent's credentials, but the pilot did not seem to care about that at this point. During the entire time, the pilot's attitude to this member of this elite security detail was rude, demeaning and dismissive.

Finally, the agent, in a calm manner, told the pilot that he believed that the pilot was treating him unprofessionally. The pilot responded that the agent, Should never addressed me directly. The agent, almost unable to believe his ears, told the pilot that these credentials would get him into the White House.

The agent was concerned that he was having so much difficulty reaching his duty station and troubled that the pilot was treating him as if he were a security threat simply because of his ethnicity. Nevertheless, he never raised his voice, he never used foul language and was never threatening.

Before leaving the airport, the agent called an American Airline employee in corporate security and gave that employee his supervisor's name and phone number. It appears that the employee was able to call the agent's supervisor and within five minutes verify the agent's identity to his satisfaction and even stated at that point that, This sounds like somebody we'd like to have on an American Airlines flight.

Other than the pilot, the agent would like me to relate that he found the other American Airlines employees that he had direct contact with that evening professional, and even gave souvenir Secret Service lapel pins to three employees who attempted to assist him as he was leaving the airport.

He arrived at his duty station almost a full day late because of this pilot's actions.

The agent now is going to be deciding how to proceed. He hopes to enter a dialogue with American Airlines on how to appropriately resolve this matter. He wants just an explanation for why this happened to him and some assurance that American Airlines is taking steps so this sort of thing doesn't happen to him or others like him in the future. He wants some recognition that his civil rights were violated and that those are important rights. He wants the airline to put procedures and training in place so that he and others will not be wrongfully singled out and discriminated against.

He has already told us that he will donate money to the families of the pilots who were killed on September 11 if he were to receive any monetary component to any settlement. He just wants to be clear that this case is not about money, it's not about wanting attention, it's quite the opposite. He just wants the right thing to be done. And we are available to take any questions that you might have.

RELMAN: Let me just, before we open it up to questions, let me just -- I'd like to make one comment and then introduce Kelli Evans to say a few words about the law as it relates...

WOODRUFF: We are listening to attorneys for a Secret Service agent who was, as you have just been listening, was stopped by American Airlines on Christmas Day as he attempted to fly from Baltimore to Waco, Texas, apparently to be part of President Bush's Secret Service detail.

He was, in effect, denied the right to fly because the pilot, and perhaps others, questioned his credentials, his identity, even though he provided identification papers.

They are not giving us the name of the agent. The lawyers say they are not authorized to do so, but they do say he has been with the Secret Service for seven years and been in federal law enforcement for his entire adult life. What he wants out of this, as you heard, at the end, them saying, just procedures in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening to others of Middle Eastern descent. And he also wants recognition that his civil rights were violated.

Again those were attorneys for the Secret Service agent stopped on Christmas Day and forced to get off of an American Airlines flight, he alleges, just because he is of Arab descent.

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