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Security Lapse Cited at O'Hare Airport - 2001-11-06

A Chicago man has been charged in federal court with trying to bring weapons onto a passenger jet. The 27-year old Nepal native was arrested Saturday night when airline workers at Chicago's O'Hare airport found several knives and other weapons in his carry-on bag.

When Subash Gurung passed through the security checkpoint in O'Hare airport's United Airlines terminal Saturday night, security officials found and confiscated two pocket knives from his carry-on bag. But, as Mr. Gurung was about to board his flight to Omaha, Nebraska, airline workers asked to search his bag again. They found seven more knives, a stun gun and a can of mace, a disabling spray.

That's upsetting news to O'Hare passengers like Donna Leak. "I have had things taken out of my bag, like tweezers, and it really concerns me that somebody can get through and the potential that they could be on a plane with me is absolutely frightening right now," she says.

Mr. Gurung has been charged with trying to board a commercial flight with weapons. Four security workers at O'Hare have been fired and five have been suspended for not detaining the man for questioning after discovering the first two knives.

Mr. Gurung says he owns the knives and other materials for protection. He says he mistakenly packed them in his carry-on bag rather than placing them in luggage to be kept in the jet's cargo hold.

Federal officials say there is no evidence at this point linking Mr. Gurung to any suspected terrorist activity. News reports after the incident had said he lived in the same Chicago apartment building as another man now being held as a material witness in the September 11 terrorist attacks. The FBI says Mr. Gurung lived in the same neighborhood as the other man, but not the same building.

The incident is expected to spark more debate about whether the federal government should take over airport security. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation calling for federal oversight of security screeners. House Speaker Dennis Hastert commented at an unrelated appearance in the Chicago suburbs. "We need to find and put into place a piece of legislation that puts the optimum safety standards out there," says Mr. Hastert. "We need to have federal oversight at every screening post, we need to have people at gates and I think that was the intent of the legislation."

The U.S. Senate has approved legislation to make airport security workers federal employees. Congresswoman Jan Schakowski of Chicago favors that proposal. "We need to upgrade the workforce there; we need to professionalize them," says Ms. Schakowski. "They need to be law enforcement officers, like the Customs Service, like the FBI. We need to have a federal workforce."

Lawmakers from both houses will have to work out a compromise between the two measures. House Speaker Dennis Hastert argues that, had the security workers involved in Saturday's lapse been federal workers, it would have been much more difficult to fire them.