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21 arrested for falsifying security badges

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CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Federal law enforcement agents arrested 21 people Tuesday and sought four others on charges of falsely obtaining security badges for restricted areas of O'Hare International and Midway airports, the Justice Department announced.

The 25 included ramp agents, truck drivers, cleaning crew members, a baggage handler, an airline cabin service attendant, and a number of food service workers, the Justice Department said. Their badges allowed them access to restricted areas such as tarmacs and airplanes.

Most of those arrested were charged with using a false Social Security number. The rest were charged either with lying about previous criminal convictions or illegally re-entering the United States after deportation.

"Systems designed for airport security, which ensure the safety of the public, cannot and will not be corrupted," said FBI Special Agent Thomas Kneir. "Individuals giving false and misleading information defeat the entire concept of homeland security."

It was the first time Chicago airports were investigated as part of the operation, said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Samborn said those charged did not pose a specific danger to airport security. "Only in the sense of the general threat that people who lie about their identities and backgrounds would pose," he said.

Agents in Chicago were still searching for the four others who were charged. Federal officials said the operation is "ongoing."

The sweep was the latest in "Operation Tarmac," a nationwide operation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ensure airport employees have not obtained their jobs and security status through fraud.

Since it was begun after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Operation Tarmac has resulted in more than 800 arrests at airports across the country, said INS spokeswoman Nancy Cohen.

Some other recent arrests, under Operation Tarmac:

August 23, 2002: 106 airport workers at three Southern California airports were indicted and arrested on immigration charges.

The workers -- at Los Angeles International Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Los Angeles' Ontario Airport -- were accused of lying about their immigration status and providing false Social Security numbers on their applications for security badges.

The majority of the employees worked in "custodial, maintenance or food service jobs at the airports, though some worked as security screeners," the DOT inspector general's office said in a written statement.

The people charged had security badges that gave them access to the most secure areas of the airport, including access to planes, runways, ramps leading to planes and/or cargo areas.

April 23, 2002: Federal authorities arrested more than 100 workers at Washington area airports Tuesday on a variety of charges, including immigration and security credentials fraud.

The sweeps at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport were the latest in a nationwide operation aimed at tightening security among airport employees.

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