Heroic Airport Security Professionals Foil Would-Be Terrorist


December 23, 2003, 03:41 PM

Coffee, Tea or Handcuffs?
An Australian journalist gets a taste of Department of Homeland Security hospitality
by Steven Mikulan

Sue Smethurst enjoys traveling. “It’s one of the things about my job that I absolutely love,” says the 30-year-old Australian, who works as an associate editor for the women’s magazine New Idea. She doesn’t even mind flying. “It’s one of the great pleasures of the world to be able to turn off your cell phone and be where no one can annoy you.”

But when her Qantas flight from Melbourne, Australia, touched down at LAX around 8 a.m. on Friday, November 14, Smethurst found herself nightmarishly annoyed — by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Smethurst was supposed to continue to New York and on Monday interview singer Olivia Newton-John. Smethurst had honeymooned in Manhattan last year

and was looking forward to a long, free weekend “having a good walk through Central Park, getting a decent bowl of chicken soup and going Christmas shopping — all those gorgeous New York things.” Better still, her six-hour layover in L.A. would allow her to have lunch with her American literary agent.

“I had a room booked at the Airport Hilton, where I was going to my leave bags, shower and get a cup of coffee.”

But first she had to clear LAX’s immigration check-in, which she reached after 20 minutes in line. An officer from the DHS’s newly minted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bureau studied the traveler’s declaration form Smethurst had filled out on the plane.

“Oh, you’re a journalist,” he noted. “What are you here for?”

“I’m interviewing Olivia Newton-John,” Smethurst replied.

“That’s nice,” the official said, impressed. “What’s the article about?”

“Breast cancer.”

When Smethurst tells me this, she pauses and adds, “I thought that last question was a little odd, but figured everything’s different now in America and it was fine.” What she didn’t know was that her assignment and travel plans, along with the chicken soup and stroll through Central Park, had been terminated the moment she confirmed she was a journalist. Fourteen hours later, she was escorted by three armed guards onto the 11 p.m. Qantas flight home.

“I want to say right off that I adore America and love Americans,” Smethurst says. Still, she remains perplexed and emotionally bruised by what followed in Terminal Four. The CBP agent who read Smethurst’s traveler’s questionnaire took her to a secondary inspection area 30 feet away and told her to wait, then left for half an hour. He returned with additional uniformed staff who, professionally and pleasantly enough, asked more questions.

What sort of stories did she write? What kind of magazine was New Idea?

Where was it published? What was its circulation? Does it print politically sensitive articles? When would her interview appear? Who would be reading it?

“I laughed,” Smethurst recalls, “because we’re a cross between Good Housekeeping and People magazine. The most political thing we’d likely print was Laura Bush’s horoscope.”

The polite interrogation continued. Who was her father? His occupation? Her mother’s maiden name and occupation? What were their dates of birth, where did they live?

The agents gravely nodded at Smethurst’s replies and left once more, promising to return. When they came back half an hour later, one of the officers offered Smethurst a cup of airport coffee.

“I thought at that stage something was quite wrong,” Smethurst says, “so I asked the man with the coffee if there was some problem.”

“I will tell you when there’s a problem,” he abruptly snapped, according to Smethurst. Then he pointed to a nearby sign:

Your Silence Is Appreciated

At about noon, CBP informed Smethurst she would be denied entrée into the United States: While Australian tourists visiting the United States are visa-waived for 90 days, working journalists need a special I-Visa, which Smethurst had not been aware of and did not possess. She had, after all, flown into LAX on the same passport eight times previously without incident. Now she was being asked to raise her right hand and swear that her answers had been truthful, then was fingerprinted and photographed — every time she comes to America, her swiped passport will bring up this documentation of her rejection. As Smethurst’s inked fingers were rolled onto the government form, she noticed its heading:


Eventually she was escorted under armed guard to a pay phone to make the call she vainly believed would clear everything up and allow her to stay in the country. Then, while conversations were occurring among her husband, editor and consul officers in L.A., Smethurst’s baggage was thoroughly searched and a makeup bag temporarily confiscated. She was then handcuffed and marched through the airport to another terminal, where LAX’s main detention center is located.

After the phone call she pleaded for food, having now been away from home nearly 24 hours. Smethurst offered money for a snack to be brought to her — French fries, potato chips, anything — but was refused.

“Would it be possible to get a cup of tea?” she asked. This too was denied, because it could be used as a weapon — someone, it was explained, had recently thrown hot coffee into an agent’s face. When she requested a cup of cold tea, she was similarly refused, although no one could explain to her how a cup of cold water could become weaponized.

Finally, around 6 p.m., a “detention meal” was pulled from a fridge, consisting of an orange, fruit-box drink and a roll that, Smethurst says, “I could play golf with.”

For a while she sat in the main detention center, unable to eat the food, as eight armed guards watched TV. Then one of the staff returned with a bag of takeout and began eating a hamburger and fries in front of her. ‰ 21

“At that stage,” she says, “I just lost the plot completely and threw the roll into the bin in front of me with sheer, utter frustration.”

The CBP would later call this gesture a “tantrum”; Smethurst, in turn, claims that she was thoroughly body searched by female staff each time she was moved from one part of LAX to another, and that she broke down in tears several times, swearing to her captors that she was not a criminal, had done nothing wrong and should be allowed in the country. She also says one sympathetic staff member told her she’d simply had bad luck in getting the agent she did at the first customs station, since the I-Visa rule was enforced at the discretion of agents. Smethurst could have entered the country by simply declaring herself a tourist on her traveler’s form — a routine practice among reporters entering the U.S.

Eventually, Smethurst’s release was won by the Consul General’s Office. The consulate also gained one other concession — the cup of tea she’d begged for. It was prepared by a senior CBP official whom Smethurst thought was the kindest American she’d met that day.

“It was the best cup of tea I’d ever had,” she says. “I didn’t waste a drop.”

There is, naturally, an official version that differs from Sue Smethurst’s description of the events that day, but a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection bureau said he did not want to “spend time on he-said, she-said charges.”

“She did become abusive,” CBP spokesperson Michael Fleming told me, however. “We tried to calm her down. Handcuffing is a standard procedure because sometimes good people can do potentially violent things. It’s not our intent to parade passengers on a perp walk — Sue Smethurst is not a criminal. It’s important for journalists to know to enter the U.S. on assignment they cannot apply under the visa-waiver program. They have to do their homework.”

When Smethurst returned to Melbourne, camera crews were waiting — all major Australian media outlets reported her ordeal. The story was treated as an example of bureaucratic arrogance run amok, because many parts of the world are still outraged by what happens at American airports to foreigners — and to many Americans. (Last September, the CBP at LAX detained the Australian-born wife of a U.S. Navy sailor for five days, while also briefly denying her infant daughter food and medical attention.) Smethurst says she’s received hundreds of messages from fellow Australians claiming similar treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration officials and knows of two fellow journalists who were sent back to Australia. When Smethurst’s editor, who planned to visit the United States on business, inquired about obtaining an I-Visa, she was told it would not be necessary. She is going to get one anyway.

Smethurst says U.S. ambassador Tom Schaeffer privately apologized to her for her treatment, but will not do so in public. Not that it matters much — the only U.S. press coverage of Smethurst’s ordeal was found in an Atlanta Constitution squib culled from the Australian Associated Press. Before November 14, she and her husband had planned to return to America to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, but, as she learned, everything’s different now in America.

“We decided to stay in Australia and celebrate here,” she says. “There was always the chance we could have got the same customs officer if we flew to America.”

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El Tejon
December 23, 2003, 03:53 PM
THR Border Guards rejoice! Another eeevil illegal emmygrant stopped cold.:D

I have a suggestion for DHS: I hereby volunteer to screen all young and nubile female journalists, especially those with reeeaaalllly cool accents. I'll need a complete armoury and an expense account for the dinner, wine, flowers, concert tickets, etc.:D

December 23, 2003, 04:01 PM
I feel so much safer now

Jeff White
December 23, 2003, 04:06 PM
I wonder if she had to declare she wasn't a member of the SS from 1938 through 1945? My friend from the UK had to back in 2002. Of course the fact that he was born around the same time the unfortunate young journalist was didn't matter.....They could have been SS members in a previous life :uhoh: .

EL-T, have you made your contribution to the precinct comitteeman yet? If you want a prime job like that it costs.....


Standing Wolf
December 23, 2003, 04:41 PM
Saddam Hussein is in custody. Norman Mineta is still on the loose.

December 23, 2003, 05:03 PM
Next time, get a Visa. The reason why is your country will not agree to reciprocity.

December 23, 2003, 05:15 PM
Looks like they need to install security cameras in these detention areas so there can be no doubt as to what happened. If there are any questions, just watch the video. Tends to make everyone involved play nice.

December 23, 2003, 05:31 PM
As some one who has jumped through INS hoops before, dotting every i and crossing every t, and payin the fees, I have no sympathy for someone who cant follow the rules.

Just becasue she illegally entered before and got away with it doesnt make her getting caught worth this waste of bandwidth.'

Funny, the same guys that whine about illegal immigration whine about stuiff like this...


December 23, 2003, 05:49 PM
journalists rank about the same as lawyers in my book.

December 23, 2003, 09:54 PM
I have to agree with WildAlaska on this one. I've had to go through the whole INS routine, first to get a work visa, then a green card. I'll be going through it again in a year or so when I finally become eligible to apply for citizenship. The rules are there - if you disregard them, even through ignorance, there's a penalty to be paid. The rules may not be particularly good, or reasonable - but then, let's get to Congress and have them change the rules, not blame the civil servants who have to enforce them.

December 23, 2003, 10:45 PM
Why not blame the bureaucrats? It was said to be discretionary. Handcuffs?? And that silly-assed report of a tantrum? Pure Orwell.
Funny, the same guys that whine about illegal immigration whine about stuiff like this...I don't whine about illegal immigration, and I find this story ultimately disturbing.

Bozos with Badges. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.


December 23, 2003, 10:48 PM
There are some good journalists. Don't lump all of them in with traditional news rag columnists and editors.

December 23, 2003, 11:03 PM
The issue here is not enforcement of admittedly abstract or confusing immigration laws. Discretion in enforcement can be a good thing, in the hands of responsible officials. Abuse of discretion, as shown by the cretins in this example, accomplishes nothing, relative to the security mission the agency is charged with.

"Yeah, I once had to jump through various arcane INS hoops, so let's waste more taxpayer money, and make world headlines treating obviously innocent travelers as terrorists for the sheer fun of it..."

Somehow I'm missing the logic here.

December 23, 2003, 11:22 PM
It’s important for journalists to know to enter the U.S. on assignment they cannot apply under the visa-waiver program. They have to do their homework
And who assigns the homework...DHS? She entered the country eight times before? Lack of communication here, but I don't know if it's her fault. Glad to be protected from her and her kind.... people like Joe Foss. High orange alert nabs its first terrorist. OBL must be laughing his rear end off.

December 24, 2003, 12:22 AM
Policy arbitrarily enforced by paper pushing bureaucrats?
Special Visas for journalists?
Relatively harsh treatment for a business traveler?
Where's the courtesy and chivalry? This is not from an entitlement perspective, but from a humanist one. How about the English code of justice, rather than the media popularized Napoleanic code?

People have said it before, but these are dark days.

Dark days are not defined by one journalist getting the run around. Look at the rest of these posts and at other boards. What the heck is really going on here? Did someone inadvertantly leave the cage at the zoo open?

Now I really am gonna make me a tinfoil hat:uhoh:

"As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances there is a twilight when everything remains
seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all
must be most aware of change in the air - however slight -
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."

--Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Bob Locke
December 24, 2003, 12:36 AM
Comparing what happened in this case to illegal immigration as a broad issue is laughable.

Illegal immigrants are well aware of the laws forbidding unlawful entry into this country, and willfully disregard them.

This lady had travelled to America on eight other occasions carrying nothing more than the passport she again presented on this trip. No attempt at all was made to avoid informing our government that she was in the country. A couple of phone calls and a little patience could have sorted this whole thing out.

The problem here is that a couple of people have gotten themselves a little authority and are trying to see how far they can take it. Saw it WAY too many times when I was in the Navy.

Let's get a little perspective, shall we?


December 24, 2003, 12:38 AM
Someone coming to the United States to work without the requisite visa was turned around. Big deal. Scrach that... Good.

The assertion that enforcing visa possession is descretionary in cases such as this is false, by the way.

December 24, 2003, 09:00 AM
I travel to Mexico to work sometimes and at the border if you are carrying tools and equipment you must pay a fee and get a special visa to work temporarily. I was unaware of the law and was stopped and held for a few hours but everyone was nice and respectful and it was worked out between my employer and the Mexican officials and I went on my way delayed but happy and full as they feed me the same food as they were having. Seems that some of our border protection people need to take a lesson from a third world country. It just takes a little common sense and respect to handle these situations. :)

Glock Glockler
December 24, 2003, 09:32 AM
What I find most disturbing is not the BS nonsense rules that are in place (why does one need a Visa to conduct an interview? Would she need one if she was touristing for a few days?) but the fact that they were enforced in such a rude and inconsiderate manner.

Do those muppets really think this Aussie chick is a terrorist? Would it kill them to show a little civility and give her a decent meal? We treat criminals better than that. This reeks of a pack of wimps with badges who got picked on in grade school and now they're going to give it back. Typical of govt bureaucrats who get a little power.

I also find it equally disgusting that some even on this board simply dismiss this incident.

December 24, 2003, 09:52 AM
This question always pops in my mind when I read something like this where someone is upset about their encounter with law enforcement "Just what did you do honey, to get them interested in you?"

She attempted an illegal entry. Oops.

As tot he tantrum? I bet she did get prssy with them as she is an important jpournalist you know! So then they said fine and followed procedures.

Some of you need to go polish your foil hats, they're getting tarnished.

December 24, 2003, 10:02 AM
Brasso or jeweler's rouge? :D

December 28, 2003, 02:52 AM
If she had been a person who boarded an aircraft bound for America without a passport or visa and knew how to say "Political asylum" as the only English words they knew, she would have been cut loose on the streets of L.A. with an INS hearing date. Most of those with an INS hearing date never show up.

An Isreali security official recently stated, "The Americans do not have a system of security. They have a system for bothering people."

I believe he is correct.

December 28, 2003, 04:52 AM
jimpeel got it in a nutshell. My wife and I have been hassled by these bozos while returning to the US and carrying US Diplomatic passports.:fire:

December 28, 2003, 08:08 AM
As far as entering the country, she tried to run the gauntlet and got caught.
Boo Hoo. She will survive.
The reason that this is so bad is that it was most likely obvious that she didn't resemble a threat in any way.
Meanwhile, how secure is our southern border?
Or the northern one?
Don't we have more pressing concerns than her?

December 29, 2003, 02:28 AM
She got turned around for not having the proper visa. Good.

She was strip-searched repeatedly, detained and questioned for 14 hours, handuffed and generally treated like a criminal. That is inexcusable.

I don't see how being stripsearched by someone of the same sex is necessarily better than having it done by the opposite sex. Every female cop I know or have met is a lesbian (really). Every lesbain that I have met was employed by the governement at some level. I have no doubt that their numbers in TSA a WAY higher than in the general population.

December 29, 2003, 05:14 AM
While I think it is good that this journalist was turned around and sent home I believe that the manner in which it was done was in very poor taste. The reference in the article to the detaining of a foreign born wife to one of our service men and denying her infant child food and medical care is just maddening. Anyone that does that to an infant should not just loose their job but face criminal charges.

I subscribe to the philosophy that one should be polite to everyone you meet, but have a plan to kill everyone. Being polite is as or even more important then being able to defeat someone in close combat. That is a good way to avoid the necessity for violence and leads to an all around happier life for everyone involved. These TSA officials were anything but polite.

I hear a lot of people on this board and others complaining about the TSA and Homeland Security. It seems rather obvious that complaining on the internet will have no effect. How about joining the TSA and working from within to make positive change. Just about everyone on this board seems very intelligent and appears to know how to be polite. Let's take that beyond the computer and lead the rest of the nation by example.

So, anyone know how to join the TSA?

Tim Burke
December 29, 2003, 08:14 AM
So, anyone know how to join the TSA?
Just what I aspire to be, one of Norm Mineta's underlings. I'd love to harass 30-something females from allied countries! Does Nicole Kidman fly? Could I harass US born little old ladies then, too? And Medal of Honor recipients? You have to watch those guys with MoHs... they are dangerous. Just don't make me confront any Islamic males between the ages of 15 & 40... they are too too scary. If I get a note from my doctor, will they waive the requirement for the lobotomy?:rolleyes:

December 29, 2003, 02:08 PM
Just what I aspire to be, one of Norm Mineta's underlings. I'd love to harass 30-something females from allied countries! Does Nicole Kidman fly? Could I harass US born little old ladies then, too? And Medal of Honor recipients? You have to watch those guys with MoHs... they are dangerous. Just don't make me confront any Islamic males between the ages of 15 & 40... they are too too scary. If I get a note from my doctor, will they waive the requirement for the lobotomy?

If you see problems with the system get off your lazy butt and work on changing it.

Since it is highly unlikely that President Bush is going appoint you to a cabinet position, or if he did that congress would confirm your appointment, your options are kind of limited. My suggestion that people on this board join the TSA and attempt to fix the problems from within is perfectly valid and actually stands a chance of succeeding.

Tim Burke
December 29, 2003, 05:22 PM
I have a job, thank you very much. Besides, I couldn't pay my mortgages on the salary of a TSA minion. If you think that the problems with the TSA are going to be corrected by THR members joining, then you don't have my experience with bureaucracies.

Jeff White
December 29, 2003, 05:37 PM
The best thing you can do to fix TSA is to disband it. It was a stupid idea to think that you could take these people and make them professionals by making them government employees.

TSA is a sick joke on the travelling public. We are mistreating a journalist who tried to enter the country on the wrong visa, but we don't give a hoot about what crosses the Mexican and Canadian border on foot. Do they really think al-Queda would bring a SADM into the country in the baggage of an Austrailian journalist, when they could walk it into the country undetected and be picked up by sleeper agents on this side of the border and driven anywhere in the US?


December 29, 2003, 05:55 PM
I don't have a problem with the fact that she broke the rules, got caught and got turned away. I mean, hey, rules are rules, right?

But while the TSA is stemming this little trickle from a harmless Australian female, who is doing anything about the flood of illegal immigration across our southern border? It's much easier to pick on easy targets such as this woman instead of dealing with the tough problem of what amounts to an open border between the US and Mexico.

This has nothing to do with the minions at the customs counters or even the Border Patrol agents who are working as hard as they can given the limited resources allocated to them.

It's about policy at the governmental level that continues to allow this kind of crap to continue.

December 29, 2003, 06:08 PM
They should have hauled her terrorist butt out to the end of the Santa Monica pier, thrown her off and told her to swim home. Teach these terrorists a lesson.

December 29, 2003, 06:08 PM
oooow......aaaaaaah..... this one ranks right up there with the one where the airport security folks made the mother drink three bottles of her breast milk to prove it was not an explosive, in order to board the plane.
And the one where the same type of morons took an old mans G.I. Joe miniature plastic rifles stating that they were following procedure.

Good goin and keep up the good work. Hope Ridge give you the medals you so desparately deserve.

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