The House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security recently convened a hearing to examine the Federal Air Marshal Service’s (FAMS) readiness to meet rapidly evolving terrorist threats. In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman Rep. John Katko (R-NY) proposed 9/11 would have had a significantly different outcome had Federal Air Marshals been onboard the hijacked aircraft.
Katko further stated that, “we also have to keep in mind that the threat to aviation security has evolved dramatically over the last fourteen years. The terrorists are constantly adapting their tactics, and we need to make sure we are not protecting ourselves against yesterday’s threat and ignoring the threats of tomorrow."
"For example," Katko stated, "the threat of an improvised explosive device (IED) being detonated aboard an aircraft is very real. Is a Federal Air Marshal capable of preventing an IED from being detonated? Or should we reallocate some of the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that are appropriated every year for the Federal Air Marshal Service towards better intelligence efforts, or security measures for other soft targets such as the unsecure areas of the airport.”
“In its current form, [FAMS] is demonstrating a risk-based approach to securing our nation’s aviation system from a terrorist attack,” Katko continued, saying, “It is not clear to me whether [FAMS] and its strategy for resource allocation have kept pace with new threats. Additionally, I remain concerned that continued public allegations of employee misconduct and abuse within the Federal Air Marshal Service have served to hurt public perception of air marshals and decimate employee morale.”
[Katko] was right — because during the eight years prior to 9/11, Federal Air Marshals were a highly trained and specialized group. But this is no longer the case. In fact, a majority of Federal Air Marshals today would likely remain in their seats or hand over their weapons if a determined hijacker presented him/ herself in “traditional” 9/11 fashion. Some people may not believe, or find this statement particularly comforting, but I personally had many former colleagues tell me this when I was an air marshal.
Although this news may come as a shock to many, the Federal Air Marshal Service’s failure to adapt to new aviation threats is even more alarming.
Instead of adapting to the changing threats, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Federal Air Marshals Service continue to train and position their air marshals to combat a 9/11-style hijacking.
Meanwhile, the FAMS program is expected to be cut back to 1,200 FAMs nationwide over the next five years, and only 500 FAMs within 10 years, according to Department of Homeland Security sources familiar with the matter.
Unfortunately, the capabilities of FAMs are not going to get better with a reduction of force. FAMs have been told that the 500 that remain in a few years will be sent through the Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP) — an old carrot that has been dangled in front of FAMs since after 9/11.
And that raises another issue: there has been a lot of talk among air marshals for some time about the high number of managers at the Federal Air Marshal Service. For one thing, their high salaries cut into the overall FAMS budget — a budget already in decline that would be better served if it was being spent on covering missions. Unfortunately, many managers have used their "air marshal" status to travel to destinations that weren’t essential to aviation security — highlighting the reality of management cronyism and mismanagement.
Standards also have dropped so much since the previous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program that a majority of the air marshals flying today are ill-prepared to deter an actual hijacking. The managers overseeing training are more concerned about avoiding lawsuits than training air marshals properly. To me, this is the biggest fault at the Federal Air Marshal Service today. I think it’s criminal to send a man or woman onto an aircraft with a loaded weapon and expect them to stop a hijacking when they aren’t trained properly.
Former FAA Associate Administrator for Civil Aviation Security Cathal Flynn previously reported that nearly 100,000 armed law enforcement officers fly on US flagged aircraft every day. This is far more than the Federal Air Marshal Service could ever cover. Yet, despite what many supporters of the program may try to say, it doesn’t take a lot of tactical knowledge to re-hijack an aircraft — It merely takes a determination to not become a victim of another 9/11 attack. I’m sure an armed law enforcement officer could figure out what to do if they were confronted with a hijacker at 30,000 feet.
Although some would argue that FAMs are better prepared to stop a bombing onboard, such as the "shoe bomber" or "underwear bomber," I would beg to differ. Because of the seating assignments that air marshals are given by office personnel in Washington DC – personnel have never, and will never fly a mission — there is a very low probability that an air marshal would be able to witness an attempted bombing in time to deter it.
Other than shooting a bipolar passenger in the jetway, I can’t recall a time when an air marshal has stopped a bombing onboard an aircraft. Unfortunately, the 9/11 mentality that continues to persist among the "powers that be" at the Federal Air Marshal Service doesn’t lend itself to proactivity. Terrorists are always adapting their methods to ensure their success. It would behoove the Federal Air Marshal Service to do the same. However, in the end, it is the men and women sitting in the aircraft that are at a disadvantage, not the bureaucrats back at headquarters.
To people that say air marshals should be disbanded all together, I would argue the contrary. Air marshals, in my opinion, should be retained in lower numbers and given better training and heightened capabilities than they currently have. There has been a lot of finger pointing at the pre-9/11 FAA Federal Air Marshal Program that has attempted to blame them for failing to foresee the terrorist attacks.
But the truth is, the Federal Air Marshals flying missions prior to 9/11 were far more capable of deterring a hijacking than the current TSA Federal Air Marshals. There is no comparison, and the TSA’s Federal Air Marshal Service has them to thank for the myth that air marshals today have the highest standard in federal law enforcement. The TSA could learn a thing or two by hiring people with actual aviation security experience, rather than continuing to promote the butt-boys and ass kissers that promote the same failing policies that managers before them have signed off on.
“The work of a FAM within the aviation domain is a difficult, thankless job. It mostly consists of long hours traveling on airliners, endeavoring to maintain a low profile while still keeping high situational awareness and being prepared to react on a moment’s notice to any disturbance which could threaten the flight. FAMS put their lives at risk on behalf of the passengers and crewmembers onboard their flights on a daily basis, and for that, [the] Air Line Pilots Association [ALPA] and its members are most grateful,” the subcommittee was told by Tim Canoll, president of the ALPA.
Continuing, Canoll told the subcommittee, “Although the FAMS cadre had numbered into the thousands prior to the 9/11 attacks, there were only 33 of them in September 2001, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. FAMS were being used to protect international flights exclusively, except when they were required to travel on a domestic leg to get to an international flight. The government’s rationale behind this arrangement at the time was that domestic travel was quite safe from hijackings, as there had been none of a US airliner since 1986.”
“After 9/11,” Canoll testified, “the program grew very quickly to several thousand FAMS and they were assigned to international and domestic flights, as they still are today. In our view, there continues to be great value in having highly trained anti-terrorism experts onboard US commercial aircraft. They are not only capable of defending the flight deck; they serve as a strong deterrent to anyone who might consider hijacking a commercial flight. TSA has adopted a risk-based security (RBS) philosophy for many of its programs—the FAM program may also benefit from adopting a greater RBS focus than it currently has, which could result in greater efficiencies and effectiveness.”
If air marshal tactics had an expiration date, similar to those found on a typical milk carton, their tactics would have begun to curdle on December 22, 2001 when Richard Reid tried to detonate an IED in his shoe, and those tactics would have turned rancid on Christmas Day, 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an IED hidden in his underwear.
Like many of my former colleagues, I preferred to fly in a first class seat when I was an air marshal; it was more comfortable and the flight attendants occasionally gave us warm peanuts to eat. I was happy to turn a deaf ear toward what other senior air marshals at my field office already knew. So, shortly after I began flying missions, I knew that the threat had changed. The threat was no longer in the front of the aircraft; it was the whole aircraft that was at risk, and sitting in the front wasn’t going to let me see what was going on in the rear of the aircraft.
One of the witnesses who testified before the subcommittee was FAMS Director Roderick Allison. Upon questioning by Katko about “What additional changes do you feel the Federal Air Marshal Service could implement to become more effective and better risk-based?” Allison said FAMS is “looking at a model of a risk by flight.” He continued by touting the typical, risk-based approach that has been in use since 9/11; which is “examining critical infrastructure, in addition to the populous areas, in addition to using that passenger information from secure flight.”
Allison stated that part of the risk-based approach was to put FAMS on flights with known travel patterns of known suspected terrorists or KSTs. What most of the public and Katko likely don’t realize is that most of these known “suspected” terrorists are financiers, not hardened terrorist-hijackers. As if almost to imply that Katko understood, Allison concluded his prepared testimony by stating, “You know, we are moving to a model where we can better utilize the infrastructure that’s available to make better judgements about our personnel.”
If I could attempt to summarize in layman’s terms what Allison was trying to say, it would be this: “We are doing the same things we have since 9/11, based off the same tactics and stale intelligence, and we are placing our air marshals on as many flights possible to ensure we retain government funding.”
If the Federal Air Marshal Service needs to realize anything, it is this: The 9/11 operation is over. Terrorists don’t care if they blow up an aircraft over a rural area or large city; the action alone serves their intent. Looking at long-haul flights packed with fuel or critical infrastructure along the way that a hijack team could fly into does nothing more than continue to use the 9/11 attacks as a way to justify the Federal Air Marshal Service’s existence. In fact, the number of attempted bombings has significantly increased since 9/11, while the number of attempted hijackings has been nil.
If Allison is truly looking for ways to keep air marshals busy while protecting the flying public, he doesn’t need to look far. The history of the past decade is as good of an indicator of what terrorists are looking to do when it comes to attacking aircraft. In Allison‘s defense, however, he is no more an expert on aviation security than the typical fast food worker is about the nutritional content of their food. If our nation is to continue to promote the usage of Federal Air Marshals, it would be better served to have a director from the rank-and-file; from the flyers that understand the contemporary threats and have flown around the world in support of the Federal Air Marshal Service mission.
And all the talk about intelligence being distributed to FAMs — this couldn’t be farther from the case.
The intelligence received by flying-FAMs is virtually non-existent. Air marshals have Top Secret clearances, but better intelligence is often gained through the rumor-mill than there is through actual classified intelligence. There have been a few occasions, for example, when close family members passed information to a FAMS officer about an incident or threat they had heard about before the officer himself was notified. In many such instances, FAMS officers never received information from anyone at the Federal Air Marshal Service.
Knowledge is power. Management may receive information on threats against aviation, but it isn’t something they share with the men and women that are actually up in the skies performing the mission. Withholding intelligence or knowledge is another way for managers to show who’s in charge; at the same time, it serves to push a bigger divide between flyers and managers at field offices across the country.
Federal Air Marshals have protected US flagged aircraft since 1962. One of the main reasons for having air marshals, even today, is that it serves as a deterrent for those that would cause harm in the skies. Just knowing that an air marshal could be onboard could deter a hijacker or bomber to carry out an attack. This deterrent value holds true whether there are 300 air marshals, or 3,000.
But since 1962, air marshal manpower has ebbed and flowed with the advent of new technology and emerging threats. Following history, it is likely that current Federal Air Marshal manpower will continue to decline, and it is in the nation’s best interest to ensure that the air marshals that are retained are highly trained and fully capable of combating the new threats as they emerge.
A highly trained air marshal force just 10 percent the size of the current force is still a powerful deterrent, and arguably more so in light of the poor standards and training given to Federal Air Marshals today.
However, if the purpose is to continue funding a flailing Federal Air Marshal Service and to continue focusing on decade old threats, by all means – have a seat in first class, watch a movie … and enjoy those warm peanuts … because you just may be in for the surprise of your life.
Contributing Writer Clay Biles is a former Navy SEAL and Department of State Diplomatic Security Service contractor who served as a Federal Air Marshal and instructor from 2008-2013. Biles was selected to receive the Distinguished Honor Graduate award upon graduation from the Federal Air Marshal academy and later accepted a number of other commendations during his service. He currently owns and operates High Order Security, a California licensed security consulting firm operating in Mexico providing risk management and assistance to high risk personnel. He’s also author of, The United States Federal Air Marshal Service: A Historical Perspective, 1962-2012, and, Unsecure Skies. He also wrote the report, The Secret World of Federal Air Marshals, in the December, 2013 Homeland Security Today. The article provoked a terse response from FAMS, which we reported in the November 2013 Homeland Security Today.