TOPICS > Politics

Airline Drug Bust

August 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For more now, we’re joined by the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, Raymond Kelly, whose agency played a major role in the Miami investigation.

Welcome, Commissioner Kelly. It seems incredible that two rings with all of these people could be operating so freely at a major airport like Miami. I mean, one of the pictures we saw they were approaching an open plane, the cargo hold, walking on, getting a bag, taking it away. I mean, how do you explain that, that no one ever detected them?

RAYMOND KELLY, Commissioner, U.S. Customs Service: Difficult to explain. I thought the U.S. Attorney Tom Scott did a real fine job today outlining that accessibility, the availability that they had to aircraft. These were people, as he said, who were not working and clearly, it calls for a lot more controls, a lot more monitoring of the employees…a whole series of initiatives that have to be put in place.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Before we get to that, tell me about these two smuggling rings, Sky Chefs and the American Airlines. First of all, were they in cahoots?

RAYMOND KELLY: The Sky Chef employees and the American Airlines employees, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t know each other, weren’t interacting. The American employees were, in essence, low-level employees, baggage handlers, warehouse guards, security personnel, and what they were doing was actually allowing drugs to come in by baggage means and then circumventing the security; they would actually take the drugs, go around the security, and then do a series of things — either given to someone outside the airport, or themselves transport them to other cities using their American Airlines flight privileges to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, these rings, I assume — first of all, do you know how long they had been operating before you all got wise to them and how much contraband they’ve actually succeeded in bringing into this country?

RAYMOND KELLY: Difficult to say. This investigation lasted two and a half years. Obviously, it’s been going on before then.

MARGARET WARNER: And was it also going on during your investigation? In other words, they had real clients at the same time that you all were an undercover client?

RAYMOND KELLY: That’s right. They brought in and we confiscated in this case almost 700 pounds of cocaine. Now, we also used sham cocaine. It was about 250 pounds. And there was 50 pounds of heroin confiscated in this case as well. So, right, there was an ongoing smuggling operation while this investigation was being conducted.

MARGARET WARNER: Who are their clients? In other words, who are the sellers who were using them, and who are the buyers?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, they’re relatively low-level people — again, being distributed in major cities in the United States. We used — that is Customs and DEA used the sham cocaine approach to get intelligence information to see how the process was working. And it indicated, as you said, and as Mr. Scott said, a rather freeform, open approach to all of this. They were able to fly virtually anywhere in the country, although it was focused primarily only on East Coast cities, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland, and then go back and do it again.

MARGARET WARNER: How widespread do you think this form of smuggling is? For instance, do you have any idea what percentage of the illegal drugs that come into this country come this way using somehow the special access that airline employees have?

RAYMOND KELLY: Very difficult to say. Obviously, this is cause for concern for us. There is a carrier initiative program — they call it a super carrier initiative program — the 15 largest carriers in the United States, international carriers, are involved in this program. We asked them to do a series of things — preemptive examinations of airplanes outside of the country before they come in. And by and large, that program is operating well. But it’s so difficult for us to get a handle, to get a sense of how large spread this problem is. American Airlines is the dominant carrier in Miami. That’s where this investigation started. So we’re not certain this skews the size of the problem or not. But we’re clearly looking into other carriers and other locations, other airports in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, let’s look now at the security procedures or the lack thereof that you all identified at American Airlines. Are their procedures typical of airlines, the fact that, for instance, employees can come in and out at will even if they had no reason to be there, the fact that they can use their passes, they even used some of those carts to go up to the airplanes — I mean, is that typical?

RAYMOND KELLY: Generally speaking, it is. And what we need is much closer scrutiny and much closer monitoring on the part of the airlines of their employees. We need, for instance, a card access system so you know where an employee goes when they enter, when they leave — magnetometers, basic things that employees are not subject to. They’re able to come in — again — off duty, have access to the ramps, access to the tarmac without supervision. They’re not working, so nobody is really looking at them. We need to have these airlines focus and focus hard on some of these issues. This just underscored the major vulnerabilities that exist in this area.

MARGARET WARNER: But it seems kind of obvious. I mean, your agency and others have elaborate procedures to catch passengers, so it would seem naturally that people who might smuggle drugs would try the other route. Why haven’t the airlines done more? Why don’t they, for instance, take some of the simple steps you just outlined?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, I think it’s been sporadic and perhaps we have to — government, that is — focus their attention on these issues and hopefully a case like this will do that. We have the authority to fine airlines when drugs are found on the aircraft. And basically that has been downplayed in the last few years because we want airlines to increase their security presence, their security procedures. Generally speaking, that’s happened, but I think we really have to collectively refocus on this problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you suggested in the little clip we ran of your press conference there were some legal restrictions or something on the airlines in terms of the kinds of background checks they could conduct on employees. What did you mean by that?

RAYMOND KELLY: Some of it is limited by labor agreements that they have. And the background investigations that are being done now are pretty cursory. They really aren’t in-depth. There’s also a fairly rapid turnover in some of these jobs. Now, it is a burden on the airline, but it’s something that we, the government, have to work more closely with the airline to ensure that more in-depth background investigations are being conducted. We want them to know who they’re hiring.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about the threat or the danger to airline passengers? I mean, that story — and I know it’s been publicized before — but, I mean, about the pilot getting the coffee with the cocaine was pretty chilling. I mean, what do you see as the danger here — say in the kind of drug smuggling that apparently went on — to passengers?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, the airlines, I think, have been particularly attentive to the issue of drugs being placed in areas that may put the aircraft in danger. A few years ago, there were cases like that. Under the carrier initiative program, we demand that a full search be done of the aircraft. We feel confident that the areas concerning the safety of the aircraft are being examined by the airlines.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean, the areas…

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, for instance, in engine components -


RAYMOND KELLY: — or things that may affect the avionics of the aircraft. I think that’s a lesson that’s been well learned by the airlines. But drugs can show up in a lot of other areas as well in an aircraft. We actually had them hanging off of a string under the floorboards of the aircraft. So there’s myriad of ways. Of course the coffee filter is another classic case. So it’s a complex piece of machinery. You can hide things all over an aircraft. But I think the safety issues are addressed by the airlines very early on in their examination of an aircraft.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think much weapon smuggling goes on? I know the U.S. Attorney said that you all, just in the past month, those hand grenades and stuff were caught in July and August– or rather, were set up in July and August. Do you think a lot of weapon smuggling is going on like this?

RAYMOND KELLY: No, I don’t. Weapons are not coming into the U.S. for the most part. I mean weapons have been going out of the U.S.; that’s more of a concern. But I think the U.S. Attorney wanted to demonstrate how kind of ruthless these people were, that they didn’t care what they brought on the aircraft. They knew clearly, the three hand grenades, two clips of ammunition and a Glock 9 millimeter handgun, they knew it openly and they were transporting sham cocaine at the same time, so it was a dual-purpose mission.

MARGARET WARNER: With these arrests today, do you think you’ve nipped the problem in the bud in terms of involving American Airlines at least at Miami?

RAYMOND KELLY: Yes, I think this has been obviously a major accomplishment on the part of the investigative agencies. But the investigation is continuing. We’re doing investigations in other locations, and we’re going to continue to look at this area very closely.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean do you think you’ve got — did the investigation come to an end now? Are the arrests being announced now because you felt you’ve come to the end of that particular operation, you knew everyone who was involved?

RAYMOND KELLY: Well, there’s — generally, yes, but there’s more to come.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you very much.

RAYMOND KELLY: Okay, thank you.