As laughable as a hoax
(Except I'm not laughing....)

The main reason I thought the Little Red Book hoax was so laughable was that I couldn't believe that federal officers would seriously waste their time on innocuous, universally-available, tacky Communist kitsch.

A story in this morning's Inquirer, however, would be even more laughable if it wasn't true, which it appears to be. Amazing as it sounds, a Bryn Mawr college student was arrested not for a silly book, but for flour in condoms:

She was a freshman on an academic scholarship at Bryn Mawr College, preparing to fly home to California for Christmas, sleep-deprived, with questions from a calculus exam still racing through her head.

In the space of a few hours on Dec. 21, 2003, Janet Lee landed in a Philadelphia jail cell, where she would remain for three weeks, held on $500,000 bail and facing 20 years in prison on drug charges.

All over flour found in her luggage.

It wasn't as if she was trying to pass the stuff off as drugs, either. The girls at Bryn Mawr are known for making goofy arts and crafts things during Finals Week, and young Ms. Lee stuffed the condoms to make improvised stress squeeze balls (a bit like these omnipresent things).

Obviously it was not a busy day for terrorism, as the authorities we normally trust to keep us safe from Osama bin Laden devoted themselves assiduously to putting this girl in jail on trumped up charges:

....[S]creeners at Philadelphia International Airport inspecting her checked luggage found three condoms filled with white powder. Lee laughed and told city police they were filled with flour. It was just part of a phallic gag at a women's college, she told them, a stress-reliever, something to squeeze while studying for exams.

The police didn't find it funny. They told her a field test showed that the powder contained opium and cocaine.

A lab test later proved the substance was flour - and no one now disputes that Lee is innocent, including the prosecutor.

How in the world could a "field test" determine that flour was opium and cocaine? The police won't say -- and apparently many of the records remain "confidential":
Capt. Benjamin Naish, a spokesman for the Police Department, declined to comment, noting that the department rarely comments on litigation. Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, also declined to comment.

Lee's lawsuit seeks to answer a central question: Why did the police field test initially conclude that the white powder contained drugs?

Her lawyers, former prosecutors David Oh and Jeremy Ibrahim, say there are two possibilities: Either the field test was faulty or someone fixed the results.

Ellen Green-Ceisler, who directed the Police Department's Office of Integrity and Accountability from 1997 to 2005, called Lee's case highly unusual. Field tests are rarely wrong.

'Almost never happens'

"I've looked at thousands of these cases, and in the context of trained narcotics officers, it almost never happens," she said. "The whole issue will come down to the field test. Was the officer trained? Was the test contaminated?"

Ibrahim said he waited to file the lawsuit until last week, on the eve of the end of the two-year statute of limitations, because Lee needed time to process what happened.

"She was devastated emotionally," Ibrahim said, noting that the event became a minor scandal among her Korean American family and friends. "She lost significant face with this event."

Many records in the case are still confidential, not yet accessible even to Lee's lawyers. What is undisputed is that she was detained at the airport shortly before she was to board a plane to Los Angeles. Court records confirm her arrest and three-week detention on drug charges. Records also confirm why prosecutors dropped the charges.

(Only after she got a lawyer was the flour retested again and determined to be flour.)

I don't blame this woman for suing! I note that her lawyer (former White House appointee Jeremy Ibrahim) is no slouch, and I honestly hope she ends up owning the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Airport so she can fire everyone responsible and tell the rest to devote themselves to fighting terrorism.

While I find the story hard to believe, the Inquirer is not some college newspaper, and I don't think they'd have run this story without checking the facts.

I have a brief observation and a question.

First of all, airport authorities have no business abusing the extraordinary powers granted them during war on terrorism to shake down people for drug offenses -- real or (as in this case) imaginary.

Second of all, what the hell kind of "drug field tests" are being used in this country? If they can't determine the difference between flour and cocaine and opium, why, it makes me afraid to get on a plane.

(Especially if I'm carrying well-known methamphetamine precursors like sudafed and lithium.)

AFTERTHOUGHT: My gut reaction to this is that the police probably never did a field test. It's just a guess on my part, but my common sense tells me that they just made up the test results to "teach her a lesson." If so, I hope she teaches them a lesson. I wish it didn't have to be at the taxpayers' expense, but maybe if things like this happen more often, people will start asking tough questions about the growing totalitarianism inherent in that damnable human rights atrocity so euphemistically called the "Drug War."

MORE: Via Glenn Reynolds, Michael Totten looks at airport security in Libya (a "total-surveillance police state" in which "one person in six works for the secret police"):

A bored official glanced at my visa, rubbed his face, stamped my passport and pointed me toward my first Libyan checkpoint. A man in an untucked button-up shirt, with a cigarette jutting out the side of his mouth, waved me toward a metal detector. He hadnít shaved in two days. I walked through. The alarm screamed and I braced for a pat-down. He just stood there, took a long drag on his cigarette and stared bleary-eyed into space over my shoulder. I guessed that meant I could go. So I did.
I hate to say it, but right now I'd rather be searched by lethargic Libyans.

posted by Eric on 12.29.05 at 07:25 AM


Security lied. They lied because they knew it had to be drugs, but the test said otherwise. So they needed to force a confession from the girl and lied to her about the results of the field test.

It is not only an example of how the drug war leads to moral corruption, it is also an example of why torture is not a valid method of interrogation.

Alan Kellogg   ·  December 29, 2005 10:31 AM

I agree, and I think it means there are a lot of people in prison who were wrongfully convicted. I hope Janet Lee's lawsuit will get their tainted test results thrown out.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 29, 2005 4:42 PM

I don't see anything in that story or the actions of the security staff that suggests any connection to terrorism. (By which I mean any connection to powers granted to combat terrorism.)

I'm also not so ready to say security "lied"; seems just as likely they're incompetent and their test apparatus was contaminated. (After all, who'd lie about finding three drugs when, as her lawyer stated quite accurately, drug smugglers don't do that, and finding just one drug would be perfectly sufficient?)

Sigivald   ·  December 29, 2005 4:43 PM

Sigivald, didn't you notice that they screened (meaning searched) her checked baggage?

On a domestic flight?

You don't think such searches are connected to terrorism?

The people who do the screening are now federal employees, newly empowered because of the war on terror. My point is, much as I support such new powers to fight the war on terror, I do not support their being used to search for drugs.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 29, 2005 4:56 PM


If the equipment was indeed contaminated, doesn't the fact they didn't maintain it properly say something about their competency?

These people are either liars, or they're imcompetent. Either way I simply can't trust them.

Alan Kellogg   ·  December 29, 2005 6:06 PM

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