A federal air marshal in the air or on the ground could have stopped the Christmas Day bombing attempt of Northwest Flight 253, said a former marshal, who was released from the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) over his protest of changes in the agency’s security plans.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should place federal air marshals on long-range, high-risk flights instead of short-range trips, whistleblower Robert MacLean–dismissed from FAMS in 2006–told Homeland Security Today.
"Thelaw says it," MacLean asserted. "Right after 9/11, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act [Public Law 107-71]. It specifically says that air marshals need tobe on high-security flights, non-stop long-distance flights such as those that were targeted on 9/11.
"So get them on high-priority flights," he continued. "You also need to get air marshals on the ground. If there were a forward team on the ground in Amsterdam, they could have stopped the attack. Given how big this flight was, I would have put two air marshals in the check-in area–one behind the counter and one to mill around in the check-in area."
The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly boarded the Northwest Flight for Detroit, Mich., in Nigeria but the flight had a layover in Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab apparently smuggled pentaerythritol trinitrate (PETN) onboard the flight in his underwear, evading detection by airport screening equipment.
But MacLean, whose dismissal came over a protest of a reduction of air marshals on long-range flights, said a marshal would have spotted Abdulmutallab and effectively would have put an end to his plot before it got as far as it did.
"This guy would have stood out," MacLean declared. "Federal air marshals are trained to spot guilt. If you look at a crowd, you can see who is rushed, who is trying to coral their kids, who is trying to not lose their bag or miss their flight.
"This guy was going to die," he added. "He was going to kill everybody on that plane. He was just a mule. He was carrying a package. He was doing what he was told to do. He wasn’t the genius behind it. Others made the bomb, formulated the operation, and got him on the plane. But a trained law enforcement agent would have been able to read his guilt."
A US law enforcement agent also would have been able to search US terrorist watch lists once they had pulled Abdulmutallab aside for questioning, MacLean said. Abdulmutallab was not on the US no-fly list, but he was in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list, which would have given a law officer reason to detain him.
Even without access to the terrorist watch list, Abdulmutallab acted suspiciously enough to give an air marshal cause to stop him.
"This guy didn’t even have a destination address. When you have a visa and you are going to the United States, you must supply an address so immigration authorities know where you are going to be staying," MacLean commented. "This stuff should have set off flags. Those flags would initially prompted air marshals to talk to this guy. I bet you with three questions, this guy would have melted like ice cream."
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the parent agency of FAMS, dismissed MacLean in 2006 after he revealed a TSA plan to remove air marshals from non-stop, long-distance flights. MacLean argued that these were exactly the types of flights the 9/11 Commission sought to protect with its recommendations and the sort that Congress intended to single out with the Aviation and Transportation Security Act.
TSA contended that MacLean willingly disseminated sensitive security information and fired him for a violation of the law.
MacLean believes the Christmas Day bombing is one of several incidents that vindicate his stance. TSA has set up FAMS field offices in US cities that support its strategy of placing marshals on short US flights.
"We have field offices in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Tampa–c’mon, give me a break!" MacLean protested. "You have them in all of these little cities but we don’t have them in major cities in Europe where there are high-priority flights?"
MacLean endorsed having air marshals on the ground in European cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London,Madrid, Paris and Rome, where they could investigate suspicious passengers crossing through major air hubs.
"We need to start reprioritizing air marshals and how we deploythem. We are putting air marshals willy-nilly on short-range aircraft. They are on hops between Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston. It’s watering down the program," MacLean stated.
FAMS would not require more funding to reallocate its resources to address high-risk flights, such as those originating from the 14 nations affiliated with terrorism identified by TSA Monday (including official state sponsors of terrorism Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria–as well as "countries of interest" Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen).
"I don’t think you need more funding," MacLean opined. "Instead of pouring water into certain cups, we are throwing it on the floor and then trying to mop up whatever we can with it. The agency is already funded with $860 million a year. That’s a lot of money for an air marshal program that gets it wrong every time.
"We didn’t have an air marshal on the Richard Reid flight and we didn’t have one on this flight," MacLean said, citing the attack on American Airlines Flight 63 by the shoe bomber in December 2001.
"But I think more focus needs to be on ground activities instead of putting jet-lagged FAMS waiting for an ambush or waiting for an improvised explosive device to go off while they are sitting down," he said.