Bonnie Sweeten not only frightened her family and sent law enforcement on a wild-goose chase that ended in Disney World, but she also dealt a blow to the nation's Amber Alert system and raised concerns in Washington about airport security.
By calling in a false report that she and her 9-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, the Bucks County woman triggered an Amber Alert, the program created in 1996 to notify the public about abducted children.
Such boy-cries-wolf behavior - in this case, mother-cries-two-black-men-in-a-Cadillac - threatens to undermine the system, particularly when it generates widespread news coverage, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
"A story like this adversely impacts the search for other children because, while this is a rarity, the next time there is an Amber Alert or notice given to the community through the media, somebody out there is going to think, 'This is probably like the last one. This is probably not the real thing,' " Allen said.
Sweeten's escapade also led U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., to question whether the Transportation Security Administration is properly screening passengers at Philadelphia International Airport and elsewhere. Sweeten used the driver's license of an unwitting former co-worker, Jillian Jenkinson, and a fake name for her daughter to buy two tickets to Orlando.
TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said screeners check boarding passes and IDs to make sure they are legitimate, and they also look at the photo on the IDs.
"But many of us don't look exactly like our driver's license photo, particularly if it was taken years earlier," Davis said. "In this case, she bore a strong resemblance to the co-worker."
Whether the two look alike is debatable, but Andrews, a member of a House subcommittee on terrorism, said the incident "raises some questions about training and supervision" of TSA employees.
What good is a no-fly list, he asked, if a suspected terrorist can just grab a buddy's driver's license?
"If we know this, than the terrorists also do," Andrews said.
Passengers who pass the ID checkpoint must still pass the metal detector, Davis said.
Andrews isn't satisfied. He said the country should consider using biometrics such as fingerprinting or retinal scans, and he wants the TSA to explain to Congress exactly what happened with Sweeten. *