Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Saving John Doe

From Rep. Pete King in The Hill

In November 2006, six Islamic leaders were removed from a U.S. Airways flight in Minneapolis after they were observed acting suspiciously - including not sitting in their assigned seats, asking for seatbelt extenders although not needing them, and making anti-American statements. The men were questioned by authorities and then cleared.

This, of course, has become known as the infamous "flying imams" incident. And while the imams did not set out to hijack the plane, it turns out they had a larger attack in mind. In their sights: the common sense of every traveling American.

In March 2007, with the help of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the imams filed suit against the airline and - shockingly - also against the heroic "John Doe" passengers who reported their suspicious behavior. These lawsuits, however, are clearly nothing more than cheap attempts to intimidate everyday Americans from taking action to
help protect our country; and Congress must take action to ensure they do not succeed.

That is why I introduced an amendment, modeled on legislation written by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), which will protect passengers and commuters against frivolous lawsuits such as those filed by the imams. The language was overwhelmingly adopted by the House, 304-121, as an amendment to H.R. 1401, the Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007.
The bill is now part of conference discussions between the House and Senate, and it is imperative that these common-sense "John Doe" protections are sent to the president for his signature.

The amendment, as adopted, covers threats to transportation systems, passenger safety or security, and possible acts of terrorism, and also shields transportation systems and employees who take reasonable actions to mitigate perceived threats. The amendment is retroactive to activities that took place on or after Nov. 20, 2006 - the date of the Minneapolis incident - to ensure that the "John Doe" passengers aboard that plane in Minneapolis receive these protections.

Just last month, we saw a life-saving example of how important reporting suspicious activity can be. Authorities in New Jersey were able to disrupt an extremist plot to attack the U.S. Army base at Fort Dix, thanks entirely to a tip from a local video store clerk. The clerk had been asked to make DVD copies of a home video that apparently showed the group shooting assault weapons, discussing jihad and shouting "Allah Akbar!" Recognizing this as extremely dangerous behavior, the clerk rightfully alerted the FBI. After the arrests were made, the FBI revealed the group was allegedly in the final stages of preparing for an armed assault on Fort Dix, and possibly several other military installations.

If the clerk hadn't reported his concerns to the proper authorities, chances are we would now be reading headlines of a domestic terrorist attack. But the clerk had both the bravery and common sense to speak up when he saw something suspicious, and America owes him a sincere debt of gratitude for doing so. While CAIR might counsel the terrorist suspects to now turn around and sue the clerk, America understands the essential role reporting suspicious activity plays in the continued security of our homeland. That is why we cannot allow radical activist groups to intimidate American travelers and commuters into keeping silent about something common sense dictates as suspicious.

In a post-9/11 reality, passenger vigilance is essential to our security. It is important to remember that the TSA and the FAA rightfully urge passengers to report anything suspicious. Law enforcement agencies across the country have tip lines to report suspicious activity. And communities and mass transit systems nationwide have adopted "See Something, Say Something" campaigns. Given the variety of threats we face and terrorists' history of targeting mass transit systems, encouraging passengers to report strange behavior to authorities is really just common sense. Failing to report suspicious behavior could end up costing thousands of lives - and while the "flying imams" don't seem to understand this, the American people do. We must make certain that brave citizens who stand up and say something are given the protections they deserve. The King amendment does exactly that, and Democratic leaders must make certain it comes out of the conference committee intact.

King is the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

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