Federal officials exaggerated and misstated facts surrounding an aviation terrorism scare at Orlando International Airport, as they attempted to defend and expand an expensive anti-terrorism program that has yet to find a confirmed terrorist, a Local 6 investigation has found.
The Transportation Security Administration has repeatedly cited the 2008 arrest of a man carrying "all of the components for an explosive device" at OIA as an example of the effectiveness of its $250-million-a-year behavior detection program.
The agency claims its behavior detection officers (BDOs) were able to intercept Kevin Christopher Brown on April 1, 2008 through careful examination of his involuntary behavior – subtle cues of deception exhibited by possible terrorists that BDOs are specially trained to recognize.
But a Local 6 investigation raises doubts about both claims, which TSA has repeated to the public and Congress as it tries to justify its employment of more than 3,000 BDOs in a nearly five-year-old program that has never nabbed a real terrorist.
Most glaringly, it turns out there were "no initiators, explosives or exploding devices" in Brown’s luggage, according to an August 8, 2008 FBI laboratory report.
Yet the TSA in 2010 continued to claim its behavior detection officers in Orlando "spotted an individual who was discovered to have explosive components."
That comment, reported by the Associated Press, came as the agency defended itself from a critical Government Accountability Office report. It found no evidence the program did better at identifying lawbreakers in airports than would a random selection of people passing through terminals.
The government’s own explosives experts had by then determined the two bottles of model rocket fuel, pipes, end caps and batteries in Brown’s luggage were not explosives and could not have been assembled into an explosive device.
While the diluted fuel was flammable, it was not explosive-grade material and there was no initiator, such as a blasting cap, among the materials, which is a necessary component to an explosive device, according to FBI experts.
Moreover, the FBI lab concluded, the pipes and end caps "would serve no useful role in the construction of an improvised incendiary device" in conjunction with the other materials in the luggage.
Local 6 found the misstatements of fact by government officials reached the highest level of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA.
In April 2008, then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress behavioral detection officers in Orlando found "all of the components for an explosive device" after searching Brown’s bag – a bag, the FBI later confirmed, contained neither explosives nor the initiator needed to create an explosion.
Chertoff also testified the TSA officers detected Brown "behaving in a suspicious way."
But any suggestion it took trained TSA professionals to detect Brown’s strange behavior is refuted by witnesses who say symptoms of his mental illness were obvious to anyone who saw him at the airport that day.
Brown had been involuntarily committed to a mental health unit two months earlier, after repeated threats and at least one attempt to commit suicide, according to court records. He was also prescribed medication for mental illness.
Passengers waiting with Brown to check in to Air Jamaica Flight 80 to Montego Bay noticed his strange behavior and, according to Brown’s attorney, alerted airline staff.
“A passenger at some point had talked to the counter persons and expressed concern about his demeanor,” said attorney Wayne Golding.
"He looked rather crazy, actually," one of the passengers told Local 6 the day of the incident. "He was rocking left to right, almost up and sound, you know, kind of wacko."
A TSA employee, who asked not to be identified, confirmed Brown was acting out emotionally for all to see.
"Kind of back and forth, looking around, sweating when it really wasn’t that hot, just acting real weird," the TSA employee said. "So you don’t have to actually have any type of particular training for that. Anyone can pretty much see that."
TSA’s trumpeting of the Brown case bothers U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Winter Park), a frequent critic of the agency.
"Using a failure or purporting to do something they haven't done is inappropriate," Mica told Local 6. He said the GAO report found the TSA program has never resulted in the detention of a terrorist, even though 16 of them at some point passed through airports where the officers were deployed.
"Terrorists continue to target the aviation sector. TSA won't say whether we've caught actual terrorists," a TSA spokeswoman said. "Many of the cases that resulted in arrests remain under active investigation by law enforcement. We may not know if the people (the program) caught in the country illegally, using fake passports or IDs or smuggling money or drugs were doing so to assist with a larger plot. But it's clearly an effective means of identifying people engaged in activity that may threaten the security of the passengers and the airports and has become a very effective intelligence tool, enabling law enforcement to bust larger operations and track any trends in nefarious activity.”
TSA declined to provide to Local 6 specifics about when it detected Brown or when it may have been contacted by passengers or airport employees about his strange behavior.
Golding said his client is "a poster child, but a poster child for the wrong reasons … They're spending a lot of money that has to be justified and this was a perfect example for them to say, look, it's working, we found a terrorist."
Not only was Brown not a terrorist, but the TSA worker who spoke to Local 6 said his luggage - even with the flammable liquid inside it - was not a threat.
"By it not being with him, then it wouldn't be a danger to anyone because he didn't have any type of connection to the bag," the worker said.
The model rocket fuel, securely sealed in two plastic vodka bottles, could have ignited if flames or some other igniter penetrated the suitcase and its contents in the plane’s cargo hold, explosives experts reported.
But, of course, in such a scenario the plane would already be in peril.
Brown was originally indicted on charges of attempting to place "an explosive and an incendiary device" on a plane, charges that carry up to 20 years in federal prison.
But in June 2009, nearly 17 months after his arrest and detention, the U.S. Attorney finally conceded it could not prove that and decided to charge Brown with a misdemeanor: attempting to circumvent an airport security system - akin, Golding said, to sneaking a cigarette lighter on board a plane at a time when they were banned.
By the time he was sentenced in October 2009, Brown had already been in custody longer than the one-year maximum for the misdemeanor. A judge gave him three years probation.
Unlike the media and bureaucratic attention that surrounded him when he was charged, no one was publicizing the day he walked out of the Orlando federal courthouse cleared of any suggestion he introduced an explosive onto a plane.
But Golding said the damage was done.
"My client's face was plastered all over the world and people will probably just remember him as the guy who tried to bring a bomb on Air Jamaica," said Golding. "And that is so far from the truth."
Brown, an Army veteran who returned to Iraq as a contractor after his honorable discharge in 2005, declined to comment to Local 6.
Last month, Brown was back in federal court, this time in Fort Lauderdale, charged with violating the conditions of his probation by being arrested for petit theft. As a cashier at Ross Dress for Less, he failed to scan about $300 in merchandise for a customer whom he allowed to walk out of the store.
"Please don’t put me back in prison, your honor," Brown said. "It would just destroy everything I’ve been working on."
Noting he had already been spared prison after a 2010 DUI arrest, the judge sentenced Brown to three months in federal prison.