What good is the $5 billion Transportation Security Administration if it can't keep armed impostors from breezily bypassing security checkpoints and boarding planes?
According to U.S. State Department and federal court documents, a man from Brazil was able to con his way onto at least one domestic flight by posing as a U.S. State Department diplomatic security dignitary protection agent.
Like smooth-talking Frank Abagnale Jr. in the recent hit movie "Catch Me If You Can," Marcello Benati used phony credentials to sidestep airline security checks. The Brazilian national's shiny badge was emblazoned with the phrase "The United States of America: DSS -- Special Agent." His fake credentials bore the official seal of the U.S. and the job description "Advanced (sic) Team/Profiler Lead."
In February, Benati identified himself to a United Airlines employee at Miami International Airport as a federal agent in a hurry to escort an "important person." He was accompanied by an unknown male who flashed similar bogus law enforcement credentials. According to an investigative memo written by State Department Diplomatic Security Service special agent Richard Higbie, the United Airlines employee stated that both Benati and his companion were armed.
The United Airlines employee escorted Benati and his traveling partner to the head of the line at the ticketing desk, ahead of other customers. There, the two men received new tickets for an American Airlines flight, which they boarded without getting caught.
Benati was arrested in April, but only after he accidentally left his wallet -- containing the fake badge and law enforcement credentials -- at a clothing store in Dallas. "He's been using this identity to fly around the country, avoiding the checkpoints going in and out of airports," Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles said after the arrest. Federal prosecutors in Miami have charged Benati with falsely impersonating a federal officer and possessing false federal identification. (Immigration records also show he was an illegal visa overstayer who violated the terms of the fraud-ridden H-1 B program for foreign high-tech workers.) Benati's companion remains unidentified and on the loose.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Ed Martelle defended his hapless agency's performance, telling the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram that, "To the best of our knowledge, (Benati) did not get through any of our checkpoints." That may be technically, bureaucratically, spokesmanly true. But it misses the point. Benati didn't have to go through any TSA checkpoints because he was apparently able to get around them.