BALTIMORE -- A college student who said he hid box cutters and other banned items on two airliners in an act of "civil disobedience" to expose weaknesses in US security was charged with a federal crime yesterday, and a prosecutor said he committed a "very serious and foolish action." Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, was charged with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft. He was released without bail for a preliminary hearing Nov. 10.
According to authorities, he told federal agents he went through normal security procedures at airports in Baltimore and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Once aboard, he said, he hid the banned items in compartments in the planes' rear lavatories.
Heatwole sent an e-mail to federal authorities in mid-September saying he had put the items aboard two specific Southwest Airlines flights. But the objects were not found until last week -- five weeks later.
The discovery of the items Thursday aboard Southwest planes that landed in New Orleans and Houston triggered stepped-up inspections of the entire US commercial air fleet -- roughly 7,000 planes. But after consulting with the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration rescinded the inspection order, and no other suspicious bags were found.
The charge against Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., carries up to 10 years in prison. US Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey set a number of conditions for Heatwole's release. Among other things, he must not enter any airport or board any airplane.
Heatwole, of Damascus, Md., sat stone-faced during the hearing. His parents were in the courtroom, but did not greet or acknowledge him during the hearing and did not comment afterward.
According to an FBI affidavit, Heatwole's signed e-mail "stated that he was aware his actions were against the law and that he was aware of the potential consequences for his actions, and that his actions were an `act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public.' "
However, US Attorney Thomas DiBiagio said Heatwole's conduct "was not a prank."
"This was not poor judgment," he said. "It was not a test. It was not a civil action. It was a very serious and foolish action."
Deputy TSA Administrator Stephen McHale said yesterday's court action "makes clear that renegade acts to probe airport security for whatever reason will not be tolerated, pure and simple."
"Amateur testing of our systems does not show us in any way our flaws," McHale said. "We know where the vulnerabilities are, and we are testing them . . . This does not help."
Guilford is a Quaker college with a history of civil disobedience that dates to the Civil War. Heatwole is not a Quaker, but shares many of the tenets of the faith, including a belief in pacifism, according to a February 2002 interview with The Guilfordian, the campus newspaper.
The student, a double-major in political science and physics, refused to register for the draft when he turned 18, as required by law, according to the interview. Instead, he returned a blank registration form to the Selective Service System with a letter explaining his opposition.
The FBI affidavit, obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, said Heatwole breached security at Raleigh-Durham airport on Sept. 12 -- the day after the two-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He did it again Sept. 15 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the affidavit said.
His bags contained box cutters; modeling clay made to look like plastic explosives; matches; and bleach hidden in sunscreen bottles, the affidavit said. Inside were notes with details about when and where the items were carried aboard. They were signed "3891925," which is the reverse of Heatwole's birthday: 5/29/1983.
On Sept. 15, the TSA received an e-mail from Heatwole saying he had "information regarding six security breaches" at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14, the FBI affidavit said. The TSA did not send the e-mail to the FBI until last Friday. FBI agents then located Heatwole and interviewed him.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, whose department includes the TSA, said officials "will go back and look at our protocol" for handling such e-mails.