[A version of this article is cross-posted at
The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy.]
Larry Gaines flew his Bonanza J35 from San Andreas in California to a small airport in Cordell, Oklahoma. The flight was uneventful; the pilot followed all FAA regulations. Shortly after landing around 6:30pm, a friend picked him up to take him to dinner. When he realized he had forgotten his eyeglasses, they headed back toward the airport to retrieve them. Unbeknownst to Mr. Gaines, he was about to star in a heart-pounding thriller with a budget and cast that puts Hollywood blockbusters to shame:
As we drove onto the airport access road, there were 3 local law enforcement vehicles – 2 turned in ahead of us, 1 behind. All three surrounded my airplane as we drove up. I retrieved my glasses, then a Washita county sheriff began asking questions.
He said DHS wanted to talk to me… I asked for the DHS telephone number. He said I had to wait because they were flying in.
We waited for the DHS aircraft. 2 black Suburbans drove up at some point during this time, plus more Cordell Police and Washita County Sheriffs. All told, there were 3 police cars, 3 sheriff’s cars, and 2 Suburbans with black windows from what I was later told was DEA. The officers/agents in the Suburbans were dressed in what appeared to be riot gear – body armor and helmets, I believe. They had shotguns and at least one German Shepherd dog…I counted 20 officers, deputies, and agents. Seven were dressed & equipped, literally, for armed conflict.
So far we’ve got eight vehicles from three different law enforcement agencies (local police, county sheriffs and DEA) for a total of twenty armed law enforcement personnel, including at least one dog team. The costume budget for this scene alone must have been enormous!
Mr. Gaines is thinking there has got to be some mistake here, obviously. The sheriff would say only that his flight fit a “suspicious profile.”
Soon enough, a swanky Citation jet full of DHS agents roared overhead, and continued to circle at 3,000-5,000 feet for the next 60-90 minutes. Because I am an intrepid investigative journalist (exactly like Jeremy Scahill!), I asked an accomplished pilot why a Citation jet would circle for 60-90 minutes instead of landing. (I also queried my vast surveillance database.) It turns out that the longest runway at Cordell is 3,430 feet, and although the Citation could probably land there it would not have enough runway to take off. Which prompts an obvious question: why didn’t DHS arrive in attack helicopters instead? Weird.
Anyway, a good sized twin-engine turboprop landed, and two Border Patrol agents were now on the scene. Mr. Gaines was “interviewed” again. He says he was lied to by the agents several times: about FAA regulations, about where his flight originated, and about his home town of Stockton being infamous for “growing drugs.” He’d lived there all his life, and had only ever seen asparagus crops. He asked the agent what had triggered all of this, and got the same answer the sheriff had given him: his flight fit a “profile.” What profile? According to the agent: “You started in California and flew from west to east.”
Oh. No. He. DIDN’T! What was he thinking? Flying from California in an eastward direction is practically a dead giveaway that one is a terrorist! Or a drug dealer! Or maybe a money launderer for terrorists AND drug dealers — and we all know how seriously the feds take that!
The agent asked Mr. Gaines if he would consent to a search of his airplane.
I teared up and my voice broke. I told him, “My Dad fought a war so this can never happen in America. I will not dishonor my father’s memory by giving up what he fought for. No, sir. With all due respect, I will not consent to a search without a proper warrant.”
The simple fact is that if Larry Gaines had only flown his plane westward from California, none of this would have been necessary. Of course, it would not have been necessary because he would have run out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, but that is not the point!
The point is this: the feds were not being truthful with Mr. Gaines about what constitutes a flight with a “suspicious profile.” And the reason we know this is because they pulled exactly the same stunt — twice — on a real estate investor when he flew his Cirrus SR-22 from the East Coast westward.
Larry Gaines is now deeply distressed. He is concerned that his tail number is on a government watch list, and that DEA and DHS are keeping files on him. Which is just silly, because as everyone knows those files on him are kept at NSA. He lamented, “I don’t know how to prevent this from happening again, aside from talking to federal employees at all times while flying.”
Richard Blackburn was talking to federal employees at all times while flying from his home in San Diego to an airport in Tennessee where a flight training facility specializes in his Mitsubishi MU-2. Upon landing, Mr. Blackburn was surrounded by police vehicles; this time, FBI joined DHS and DEA, each with their own dog team. Mr. Blackburn agreed to allow all of them to search his plane without warrants. He was interrogated about his trip separately by each agency regarding (1) what happened to the two passengers (he never had any passengers), (2) what about the $250,000 (he had $300 in his pocket), and (3) what he was doing in Mexico (he hadn’t been to Mexico). On this latter point, he told the agents they could easily verify his route from by checking his radar tracks on FlightAware. Curiously, when he later checked FlightAware himself, the first two legs of his journey were accurate, but the last showed a wildly circuitous route: winding South to the border, then 60 miles North of his destination in Tennessee. According to FlightAware, Mr. Blackburn had never even landed in Tennessee—where he was detained and interrogated until 4am by federal agents. He also speculated about Mexico and the $250,000:
I had a conversation with a business associate about a project I was working on that needed a capital investment of $250,000.00 and during the same conversation I mentioned after my flight to Tennessee that I was going to Mexico in my airplane down to Cabo. I think it is possible that someone was listening to my cell phone for some reason and that is what started something with homeland security….
Well, Mr. Blackburn, you live in San Diego, and you do have an airplane, thus you were rightfully under suspicion of conspiring to fly it eastward — which suspicion, I might add, turned out to be well-justified. Tsk-tsk.
Clay Phillips, a retired US Navy officer and engineer for a defense contractor with security clearances, had a similar experience. Then there was Robin Fleming, a 70-year-old glider pilot in South Carolina. On landing he was met by at least 12 police vehicles, handcuffed, jailed for 24 hours and interrogated by DHS and FBI for gliding over a nuclear power plant near his home airfield. There are no restrictions on that air space, as a look at an aviation chart will show, and he had broken no laws. Mr. Fleming was lucky: officials had been considering shooting down his glider.
There are more cases like these being brought to light by The Atlantic’s James Fallows, a Cirrus SR-22 pilot himself. He does not whinge about the unfair harassment of these poor white men with airplanes, although he notes about private aviation that “demographically it skews toward older white males who are politically conservative, have money, and often have military experience.” Rather, Fallows concludes that these experiences are the inevitable result of our two open-ended, fully bipartisan “wars” — the War on Drugs and the equally counterproductive War on Terror — and that if the state is targeting these people, one can only imagine how such tactics extrapolate to less privileged groups.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine. A reader from South Dakota wrote to Fallows:
Every time I travel abroad I am taken aside and asked a whole lot of questions that most of these highly irate pilots would [n]ever be asked because I am dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who was born in Greece and is a naturalized [U.S.] citizen…I find it ironic that they have discovered that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism applies even to them – nice, white, middle to upper-class, middle-aged folks – and that the Patriot Act and its ilk might have serious repercussions for all of us.
In a follow up email to Fallows, she added:
What I would really like is for those who do experience such harassment – rather than raise up conspiracy theories or complain endlessly about how badly they have been treated – to recognize that they have just been inducted into the world that thousands, hundreds of thousands, of American citizens undergo every day, and which they have acquiesced, approved, participated in…And decide that if it isn’t fair for them, it isn’t fair for anybody, including the scary black guy or Muslim woman or the 60-year old Greek born woman trying to get to Ireland.
Or the 14 year old holding his puppy. A 17 year old holding his Skittles. Women at a routine traffic stop. The disabled, the infirm and the mentally ill. All of which is to state the obvious: when the U.S. government lavishly funds a militarized police state with vast surveillance capabilities, no one is safe from the consequences.
Here is an informative graphic to help pilots successfully avoid the U.S. Gestapo: