I had a first class return ticket, Hawaiian Airlines flight #23, Seattle to Honolulu, departing Sunday September 16 at 11am, connecting in Honolulu to an Aloha interisland flight, final destination Hilo, Hawaii

I was traveling with LOTS of electronic gear... To facilitate possible airport searches, I packed all the electronics into ONE suitcase, almost entirely filling it with computers, wires, transformers, batteries, interface cables, GPS, & other electronics .

I arrived at SEATAC airport 3hrs early, as advised. Most airline check-in lines stretched several football fields in length, families and individuals waiting with all their luggage to check in at the counter.. it looked like a 2-3 hour wait for them, shuffling through the lines with all their baggage. The Hawaiian First Class check-in line was almost empty, I was checked in with my luggage on the conveyor within 15 minutes. I was stoked, so happy that I went first class. There was no search of my luggage (as far as I can tell, neither my check-in baggage, nor my carry-on laptop computer were ever searched or subjected to any special scrutiny).

I arrived in Honolulu with 2hrs 'til my Aloha flight to Hilo. I went to the outdoor interisland smoking area, to wait. I saw a National Guard guy, in military fatigues, carrying an automatic rifle, taking a smoke break nearby. Hey- photo op! I thought this worth recording for posterity- I took a photo with my Nikon digital camera. This was about 3:25pm Hawaii Time. My scheduled Hilo departure was 4:20pm.

Another smoker related his problems getting from Honolulu to Kona on Hawaiian Air, after having missed his flight during the airline shutdown. I was telling him that Aloha might honor his Hawaiian Air ticket, that he should check with them for a flight to Kona, when an young armed airport security guard (Akal Security, I'll call him "Carlos", to protect his identity), approached both of us and requested our ID and boarding passes.

(AKAL is a private security firm, based in Arizona, with the contract for Honolulu airport security- they wear tan uniforms and gold badges, and carry holstered sidearms. There is an interesting discussion concerning this company here)

[also note: I am wondering whether the airport security cameras also contain "3D directed microphones", capable of isolating and recording individual conversations between people- certainly the technology exists, and the fact that I was approached only after (1) taking a photograph, and (2) conversing with a fellow passenger about techniques to successfully board a plane to the Big Island, leads me to possibly paranoiac contemplation...]

After supplying the requested information to the guard, my "smoking buddy" quickly departed, but the security officer remained, and asked me "why are you taking photos of the soldiers?". I said that I'd thought it was unusual & remarkable to see armed National Guard in the airport, and that it was "news"- I thought it was worth recording. He said "you shouldn't be doing that". I said that I understood the concerns- I didn't mean any harm, and I didn't know that it wasn't allowed for me to take photographs in the airport area.

Carlos departed, but returned a few minutes later, and asked me to follow him to an empty departure gate, where he had me remove the camera "film" (digital CF card), and then took possession of the camera, CF card, my drivers license, and my boarding pass. From this time (about 3:38pm, Sept 16), until I was later "released" (about 6:10pm), I was under control by Carlos and other armed Akal security personnel.

Note that I was never arrested, charged, "mirandized", nor searched (neither my person or my laptop briefcase), at any time, during all that follows. Everyone involved was courteous or even at times friendly, and there was no particular attempt to intimidate me, although questions were very pointed, and I was always surrounded by armed guards, without any personal freedom of movement.

There followed an extended radio discussion between Carlos and (??others??), concerning what to do with me, my camera, and the CF "film" card. Eventually Carlos told me that they would probably "confiscate my film", and also the camera (so that they could access the images from the CF card). He asked if I had "any other film or pictures", to which I replied "no" (not wishing to have my laptop computer also confiscated- it did actually contain hundreds of digital images, mostly of friends and family, taken by me over the past several months).

Carlos led me back to the interisland X-ray security area, and had me stand in front of one of the ceiling mounted security cameras, so that they could get an image of my face (I assume to compare with known security risks).

I had been taking notes about everything that was happening, for future reference- Carlos at this time asked pointedly "what are you writing down", and after telling him what I was doing, I asked whether "taking notes is also disallowed?"... he said "no" (I continued making notes).

I was asked whether I had any checked baggage, and I explained that my luggage was checked on at Seattle, for delivery to Hilo. There was some discussion between Carlos and other security personnel, about whether my checked luggage would be removed from the plane and searched- my impression was that they would do so, but this was apparently not done (I suspect it was already on the Aloha flight bound for Hilo, by this time). I was somewhat concerned about that possibility, because I could foresee an extended "detention", while they poured over all the electronics gear, looking for anything that could be considered threatening (not to mention the possibility that my property might actually be torn apart or damaged during the "investigation"). When I later retrieved my luggage in Hilo, there was no evidence that it had ever been opened or searched.

My boarding pass and ID were returned at this time, but Carlos retained my camera and CF card.

Wanting to be helpful, and show I had not been deliberately documenting airport security nefariously, I showed Carlos how to review the images recorded, by playing them back on the camera's small LCD screen... most of the images were of clouds, taken out the window during the Seattle-Honolulu flight. There were only two images taken in the Honolulu interisland terminal.

This "helpful initiative" turned out to be a mistake: there was also an image in the camera of a printed page, showing a picture of a computer monitor along with the text. This was a copy I had made while in Seattle, of a brochure describing a scanning device marketed to people with limited sight, to greatly magnify printed material so that they could read it (my mother has Macular Degeneration, is legally blind, and might be able to use such a device). Carlos thought this looked like some sort of documentation of airport security scanners or other devices, and that assumption kept popping up in later conversations with other security personnel (including the FBI, see below).

I *almost* showed Carlos how to use my laptop computer, to view this and the other images at full size, so that he could read the text, and see that it & all the other images were innocuous, but thankfully, better judgment prevailed (let's please NOT get my laptop computer involved, or confiscated!).

While waiting for someone to make a decision about my status & disposition, I attempted friendly conversation with Carlos, at one point asking how long he had been working that day- he said it was "a long shift", and I replied that I "had been working at this since 6am this morning" (meaning that I had started what was turning out to be a very long journey, very early that morning)... This was a dangerous comment: Carlos immediately got very tense, stared at me hard and said "what do you mean? working at what?". A little scary. I stopped trying to make idle conversation.

Shortly after, I was taken into a small security room, next to the Xray security station (this was apparently a "shift room", with candy and soda machines for security personnel). I was introduced to "Captain W.", apparently Carlos' immediate supervisor in Akal (I had heard his name mentioned during several of the earlier radio transmissions).

We sat at a small table, and Capt. W. asked a number of questions about where I lived, where I worked, etc. He was not taking notes, and the conversation was apparently casual and friendly, but I suspected he was "probing" for mistakes or suspicious answers. I told him that I worked at an observatory on Mauna Kea, and gave him one of my Keck business cards- he seemed to be impressed that I worked at Keck. I gave him a short personal history, from Honolulu and UH Manoa IFA through Haleakala and Mauna Kea. He seemed very interested in astronomy and asked questions about what we did at Keck, how difficult the work was, what astronomers I knew and respected, what the work shifts were like, etc. In the beginning, I thought he was probing for discrepancies, but the conversation became more relaxed and friendly with time. I found out something of his own personal history (born and raised on Kauai, military service, then Akal Security; current home in Wahiawa, one young daughter interested in veterinary medicine). At one point he asked if the "money was good at my job", and I told him my gross salary last year, which stopped him dead... long pause. I asked him if he wanted to apply for a job. We spent about an hour "talking story" like this, waiting to hear from the FAA, about what was to be done with me.

During this time, Capt. W. was also making frequent calls out, apparently to Akal, FAA security, and/or the local FBI, trying to determine whether I was to be held, or allowed to continue to Hilo. I asked and was allowed to use my cell phone to advise the Hilo friends that had been expecting to pick me up, that I had been "delayed" in Honolulu (I had missed my scheduled flight, by that time). I had been told by another guard earlier, that he thought that the last Hilo flight departed at 6pm. As 5:30pm approached and passed (my eventual disposition still unknown), I asked Capt W. whether I should contact friends in Honolulu, to arrange a place to stay there, should I miss the last Hilo flight. Capt W. made an immediate call (to FAA? his Akal superiors?), asking whether they were prepared to pay for a hotel room for me, should I miss the last Hilo flight. The conversation was short, and I got the impression that Capt W. was dissatisfied and frustrated with the answer to his question (the answer was "no").

When he got off the phone, his first words to me were that I had "an excellent case for a lawsuit- there are no laws, or signs in the airport, indicating that I could not take photos; I'd been detained and had my camera confiscated, and I was not being allowed to reach my destination". He seemed sincere, and upset. I explained that I was not interested in talking to a lawyer or initiating a lawsuit, that I understood the extra precautions and the resulting inconvenience, that all I wanted was to get back home to Hilo, and (eventually) to have my camera returned. He thought I was being "too easygoing about this", that I should consider sueing, but that after all he was "on the other side of this, employed by Akal, and not really in a position to advise me". We left it at that.

Shortly after, two FBI agents entered the room, and were introduced. Capt W. asked that one of them accompany him outside for a moment, and my suspicion is that he told them that he thought I was an innocent victim of the extra precautionary measures, that I was a "straight guy", and should be released.

The FBI agents were both young, one looking almost a teenager- he took notes, and seemed to be the junior partner. The other agent was somewhat older, and had the characteristic "wide eyed unblinking intense stare" of an FBI agent. Both smiled a lot, explained that this was just routine, a procedure required by their superiors and the FAA, that I was not being detained by the FBI, but rather by airport security and the FAA, that they (the FBI) had no real interest in me, and that I should not be nervous or alarmed.

They tried to put me at ease (rather lamely, I thought, treating me as if I were a lost child), and proceeded to ask a short list of questions to establish my ID (name, address, social security number, birth city, birth date), and a few questions about the photographs on my camera. The camera was not in the room, so I could not go through the images with them- they had apparently been told that the pictures I'd taken included "photos of airport security cameras", which I denied- as far as I remember, I took only two photos at the airport, both of National Guard soldiers, though there certainly might have been a security camera serendipitously included in one of these photos (this turned out to be the case, see below). They also mentioned the image of the brochure page (described above). I told them what this was, and mentioned that since they had the images, they could display them for themselves, to find out that they were as innocent as I have described- a scanner to help the nearly blind read. They asked whether this "scanner" documented in the photo was not "possibly a security scanner of the type used by airport security personnel"... I said that this was not the case.

In the end, the FBI "interrogation" was brief and reasonably casual, only about 15 or 20 minutes altogether.

Note that during the entire "detention" period, I was carrying my laptop computer briefcase. It was never taken, opened, examined or inspected by any security officer or agent, and I was not personally searched at any time. The FBI did ask whether I had any "knives" in my possession, but were satisfied with my negative reply.

After the FBI was finished with me, Carlos came back into the room, to fill out an airport "Lost & Found" form (he wrote "Confiscated" at the top of the form). The form listed my camera (Nikon Coolpix 950, serial #303820), the CF card (Lexar 32mb CF), and (at my request) the Kodak NiMH batteries in the camera. Carlos said that I "should contact Honolulu Airport Lost & Found within 45 days", to arrange return of the camera. The report was initialed by me, signed by Carlos, dated Sept 16 at 15:38 hrs (the time of the original "detention"), and the report number was 01-09-290. I asked for a copy of the report, but he said that he could not give that to me, and I neglected to even get a written receipt from him (I was feeling a bit rushed, still hoping to get to Hilo on what I thought was the last flight at 6pm).

By the time the report was completed, it was about 6pm, and Carlos said that I was "released". I asked him if he could help me try to catch the last Aloha flight to Hilo- he took me out to the Aloha check-in counter and asked for the Aloha flight manager, who told him that I probably could not make the 6pm Aloha flight, but that there was another flight at 6:48pm. The Aloha flight manager personally gave me a boarding pass for that flight, and I was back in Hilo at about 7:30pm- my checked luggage from Seattle was on the baggage carousel there, apparently unmolested.

When my friends picked me up in Hilo, and I told them my story, one phoned a reporter friend at the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, who "might be interested in the story for publication". Nothing ever came of that...

I decided the following day (Monday, Sept 17) to immediately start efforts to locate and track my camera, to avoid the possibility of it being "lost in the confusion", never to be seen again.

I phoned Honolulu Airport Lost & Found (808-836-6547), but they said that they had no record or knowledge of my "confiscated" camera, and suggested that since it was confiscated by the FAA, I should contact FAA Security at 808-836-8406. Unfortunately, voice mail informed me that this number belonged to an employee who would be "off island until Oct 26", so I looked up "FAA Security", and phoned 808-836-8400. They said "we don't know anything about this", and recommended phoning AKAL Security at 808-836-6569. Unfortunately, this number (and the other number provided by Verizon directory assistance, 808-396-6866), gave a "busy signal", every time I tried it over the next two hours.

I eventually tried phoning the "Airport Sheriff's Office" at 808-836-6606 (I found this number on the WWW), and someone there gave me the "Security Dispatch" number (808-836-6641). When I phoned them, they said to try the "Airport Duty Manager" at 808-836-6434. I got voice mail there, left a message, and when I got no response, tried calling back again about an hour later (3:30pm Monday). This time I got an actual human being, who also didn't know anything, but took my number and promised to "see what he could do".

I had heard nothing as of Tuesday 9/18 (10:30am), so I phoned again (Airport Duty Mgr, 808-836-6434), and this time I talked to "Jerry", who knew what I was asking about, told me that the FAA had the camera, and that I should call again, at the end of the week, to try to get the camera returned. He was very cordial, and invited me to call between 6:30am and 2:30pm, to speak to him personally, about retrieving my camera.


Personal commentary:

In 1999, I was offered a position with the Gemini Telescope project, in Chile. I turned down this offer, in part because I was afraid of losing my constitutional freedoms, while living in that foreign land.

After the current tragedy, we will be (or are being) asked: Are we willing to give up some of our freedoms, our constitutional rights, in our quest for safety and security?


Many of our neighbors and friends will reply "I have nothing to hide, greater police powers and federal jurisdiction is justified, in the interest of our general safety". I understand this idea, but I do not agree. I side rather with the founders of our nation, with the men who wrote our constitution, that security without freedom is no good bargain. I would rather be afraid and free, than secure and in chains.

The incident described above was not a terrible transgression of my personal rights. Everyone that I dealt with was friendly & courteous. I was "detained" for only three hours. My camera was "confiscated", but I have reason to believe that it will be returned.

My fear is that this sort of thing will become "standard operating procedure", that the US public will accept this as the "cost of security", and will voluntarily give up, and allow to be legislated away, the rights that our government, and our constitution, have always guaranteed. I believe that, once those rights are given away, they will be very difficult to recover- a government granted totalitarian powers will be very reluctant to give up those powers.

Your email comments are very welcome-

joel aycock (9/18/01)