CHICAGO (AP) Private security workers at O”Hare International Airport have been suspended for allowing a man to pass through a checkpoint with several knives and a stun gun in his carry-on luggage.
Federal law enforcement officials said there was no indication the man was involved in terrorism. They said he told them he owned the knives for protection and mistakenly packed them in a plastic bag rather than his luggage before leaving for the airport.
In a statement issued yesterday, Atlanta-based Argenbright Security Inc. said eight of the workers they hired to operate the screening operations at United Airlines” terminal had been suspended pending a company inquiry.
The Federal Aviation Administration is also investigating.
City officials said the workers, including one supervisor, failed to detain the Subash Gurung, of Chicago, after two folding knives were discovered in his pocket when he passed through a metal detector.
The workers did not notice seven other knives, a stun gun and a can marked tear gas when Gurung”s bag went through an X-ray machine. Instead, they were found by United employees in the gate area who searched Gurung”s carry-on bag, police spokesman Thomas Donegan.
“Something obviously went seriously wrong here, and we”re trying to find out if it”s the employees” fault,” said Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. “If weapons were confiscated, he should never have been let through security.”
Gurung, who told authorities he was unemployed, was arrested trying to board a United flight to Omaha, Neb., on Saturday night, Donegan said.
He was charged with unlawful use of a weapon and attempting to board an aircraft with weapons, both state misdemeanors.
Gurung told WLS-TV in Chicago that he collects knives and that the stun gun was for protection.
“I was living there in Chicago and I don”t have any friends at the time,” he told the television station. “Two years I was completely alone there, totally insecure and lonely there.”
After being released on bail on those charges early Sunday, Gurung was rearrested by FBI agents when he returned to O”Hare to retrieve his checked-in luggage. He was charged with a federal felony count of attempting to carry a weapon on an aircraft, Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney”s office.
“The investigation does not seem to reveal an illicit, suspicious or nefarious intent about his trip to Omaha,” Samborn said.
At a brief court appearance yesterday, a judge ordered Gurung, a Nepalese citizen who is in the United States on an expired student visa, held without bond.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta who was visiting Chicago yesterday called the incident “a case of dramatic dimensions.”
He blamed United, saying the airline is in charge of screening passengers on its flights. Mineta called for the FAA to impose a substantial fine on United.
United said it was “aggressive and effective work” by its own employees that prevented the weapons from being carried on board. The carrier said it has engaged outside auditors to monitor its security vendors.
Last month, the FAA and the Transportation Department announced an audit of the screeners employed by Argenbright, which operates at 14 airports. Officials alleged Argenbright has failed to adequately check employees” backgrounds.
Argenbright said in a statement yesterday that under a new policy effective immediately it would search the carry-on luggage of passengers if its employees confiscated items from them at security checkpoints.
Lawmakers said the incident would provide ammunition in debates over anti-terrorism legislation pending on Capitol Hill.
Democrats want the federal government to take over airport security, while President Bush and many Republicans say the security job should stay in private hands.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said officials would not have been able to remove the employees if they had enjoyed the civil service protection of federal employees.
But Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) maintained that the security system would never work unless those running it were federal employees, “like the Customs Service, like the FBI.”