Ever since the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) issued a “briefing” to its members earlier this month warning them about possible dry-runs performed on passenger planes by possible terrorists, there’s been considerable debate among pilots and counterterrorism authorities over whether terrorists continue to conduct such probing and surveillance activities.
Most of the debate has centered on whether the incident discussed in the USAPA bulletin represents a legitimate concern, and whether terrorists continue to be involved in probing US aviation security measures.
The group’s bulletin stated there were “several cases recently throughout the industry of what appear to be probes, or dry-runs, to test our procedures and reaction to an in-flight threat” by possible terrorists.
According to the Airline Pilots Security Association (APSA), 95 percent of flights are “at risk” because only 2 percent of flights are protected by members of the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS).
According to USAPA’s briefing, on the Sept. 2, US Airways Flight 1880 from Reagan National Airport (DCA) to Orlando, Fla. (MCO), “A group of Middle-Eastern males boarded in DCA. Shortly after takeoff, one got up and ran from his seat in coach towards the flight deck door. He made a hard left and entered the forward lavoratory, where he stayed for a considerable length of time. While he was in there, the others got up and proceeded to move about the cabin, changing seats, opening overhead bins, and generally making a scene. They appeared to be trying to occupy and distract the flight attendants.”
“Coincidence?” asked USAPA Security Chairman Steve Sevier, and security committee member, Pat O’Laughlin.
Sevier and O’Laughlin said “There is another interesting twist to this case. It just so happens thaton the return flight from MCO-DCA, with the same flight number, a group of eight Middle Eastern females — concealed in full burkas — were in the boarding area for the flight to DCA. This flight did not have a FAM team, even though it was supposed to have a significant VIP aboard. (He was rebooked when all these details were made known to his security detail).”
“Coincidence?” Sevier and O’Laughlin again asked, pointing out that “There was a FAM team aboard the DCA-MCO leg, and they thought it serious enough to get up and ‘make their presence known.’ Without getting into details of the procedures used, suffice it to say that they dealt with the situation in no uncertain terms.”
Sevier and O’Laughlin stated in their briefing that “The captain demanded that the aircraft be given a complete security inspection by the TSA, station security,and had the entire airplane searched with bomb dogs before leaving MCO. Of course, the company resisted. However, the captain prevailed, and guess what? Evidence of tampering was found.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told Tampa Bay, Florida’s Channel 10 (WTSP), which originally reported the USAPA briefing, that the reputedly suspicious incident discussed in the association’s briefing did in fact take place, but that it did not require further investigation.
"The Transportation Security Administration takes all reports of suspicious activity on board aircraft seriously,” said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein. “Working collaboratively with local law enforcement, it was determined that the matter required no further investigation at this time. Additionally, due to the critical mission of TSA’s Office of Law Enforcement, TSA does not confirm the presence or identity of Federal Air Marshals.”
US Airways spokesperson Michelle Mohr confirmed that four passengers onboard the flight were detained by local law enforcement when the plane arrived in Orlando because of their suspicious behavior during the flight.
“They’re flat-out liars,” a Federal Air Marshal told WTSP regarding TSA’s position that the incident didn’t warrant further investigation. The air marshal stressed the incident was serious, despite what TSA said.
“We’re waiting for the next 9/11 to happen, because it’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when,” the Federal Air Marshal told WTSP.
Florida Republican Rep. John Mica has called for an investigation of the incident because of its “suspicious” nature. “Any suspicious reported incident of this nature should be properly investigated,” Mica said, adding, “It is government’s obligation and responsibility to remain vigilant. While the specifics of the US Air incident are not public, federal authorities must review the matter.”
Thirty-two year veteran law enforcement officer Michael Homer, who retired as a sergeant with the Brevard County, Fla. Sheriff’s Office and is now owner of a maritime anti-terrorism and explosives awareness training company, wrote on the LinkedIn group, Security and Defense, that “The TSA has discounted this as a ‘non-event’ (as usual),” but noted that “Over the past decade there have been numerous probing and testing of aircraft security that are continually discounted. Talk with Federal Air Marshals and get their expert opinion … 9/10 mentality continues to bite us in the ass.”
“Frankly, there has been a real problem with management taking much of what typical flying FAMs say about these issues: it’s a problem that goes back to the days of [former FAMS Director] Tom Quinn. There is a big divide and mistrust with management, and there are not many FAMs that report these incidents, even if they seem suspicious,” former Federal Air Marshal Clay Biles told Homeland Security Today.
Quinn was widely criticized for alienating Federal Air Marshals and Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) by compromising marshals’ cover with a formal dress code and for lobbying against a bipartisan security bill that was designed to improve the FFDO Program.
Echoing Biles, Jeffrey Black, a Federal Air Marshal stationed in Las Vegas in 2007, told The Washington Times at the time that “Agency management was not only covering up numerous probes and dry run encounters from Congress and other federal law enforcement agencies, but it was also hiding these incidents from their own flying air marshals.”
Black told the newspaper he’d personally been involved in terror probes ignored by federal security managers, and said such behavior was “typical.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General’s (IG) review of DHS’s handling of suspicious passengers and activities aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29, 2004, in which 13 Middle Eastern men [with expired visas] behaved in a suspicious manner that aroused the attention and concern of the flight attendants, passengers, air marshals and pilots, noted that “air marshals are integral to assuring the safety of the flying public by protecting passengers and flight crews in the event of a hijacking or terrorist incident.”
The IG’s investigation detailed a litany of “suspicious” activity by the men, including the fact that one had been “involved in similar suspicious behavior on a January 28, 2004, Frontier Airlines flight.”
When asked if he personally believed flight 327 was a terrorist probe or dry run, Black said, “In my opinion, and based upon my experience flying hundreds of missions since 9/11, my answer is, yes it was. Do I know 100 percent for sure? No, of course not. Short of obtaining signed confessions from all 13 Syrian ‘musicians’ involved, only they know for sure what their true intentions were for acting so ‘suspicious’ during the flight. And this is exactly why the Inspector General’s report doesn’t conclude, without a doubt, that their actions were positively construed as a probe or dry run. The only people who know this for sure were allowed to freely leave the country and fly back to Syria without ever being thoroughly interrogated. And remember, a third of the Inspector General’s report is still highly redacted.”
The IG’s review of the incident determined that DHS’s “internal system for communicating and coordinating information on suspicious passengers, activities and incidents in the gate area and aboard aircraft need[ed] improvement.” At the time, the IG found, “air marshals generally lack an effective means to communicate with the flight crew …”
“Further,” the IG said, “key departmental components were either not notified or not notified timely of the suspicious activities that occurred before and during the flight. In addition, both the FAMS and the FBI have statutory authority to investigate in-flight incidents, thereby causing possible confusion, duplication, and the potential for compromising investigative cases.”
The IG’s investigation said “The department’s internal system for communicating and coordinating information on suspicious passengers, activities and incidents relating to commercial air travel needs improvement. Specifically, while in-flight, air marshals do not have an adequate and timely method of communicating [passage redacted] and the department does not have adequate policies and procedures clarifying each agency’s roles and responsibilities, as well as requiring coordination and information sharing on suspicious passengers and activities.”
While congressional and other independent federal investigators said there have been improvments in the FAMS system, and that IG recommendations are being implemented, there are still some FAMS and others familiar with the problems who say there are still unaddressed issues with regard to assessing and dealing with threats like potential dry-runs and suspicious behavior on the part of passengers.
USAPA’s Sevier and O’Laughlin stated at the outset of their briefing that "Bringing down an airliner continues to be the gold standard of terrorism," and that "If anyone thinks that our enemies have ‘been there, done that’ and are not targeting US commercial aviation — think again.”
"Terrorists have gathered a wealth of information in the past on aviation, and any businessman can figure out very quickly who the FAMs are on a flight; it’s not something terrorists necessarily have to go out and gather intelligence on … it’s readily available on the Internet, or can be gathered directly from the FAMs themselves,” Biles said.
Indeed. Biles wrote that because the possibility exists that terrorists could compromise Federal Air Marshals, it’s importance that FAMS strictly adhere to their operational security training in his disturbing report, The Secret World of Air Marshals, in the October, 2013 issue of Homeland Security Today.
As part of FAMS training, prospective air marshals are grilled to understand that terrorists attempting to gain control of, or blow up a commercial passenger plane, are instructed to identify and kill air marshals who may be on the aircraft.
"They are trying to pull out air marshals if they are on board, or law enforcement if they are on board. They are looking for how the crew reacts," a Federal Air Marshal told WTSP on condition of anonymity.
Commenting on the LinkedIn group, Security and Defense, James O’Donnell, owner of O’Donnell Protective Services, said, “The point is more that the terrorists are testing us. We need to get the word out to travelers and aircrews to continue vigilance. Always vigilant. And not just on aircraft. When we no longer have a presence in Afghanistan, there will be increased terrorist activity within these United States. Prepare our populace now for what they may expect or see and what should be done to counter these dry runs so the terrorists know we are no longer in the dark.”
In the House Committee on the Judiciary’s 2006, 147-page investigative report, Plane Clothes: Lack of Anonymity at the Federal Air Marshal Service Compromises Aviation and National Security, the committee disclosed that there’d been numerous incidents indicating “probing-like activities” that had been “observed by … separate federal air marshal teams.”
The committee’s investigation, which TSA tried to have classified, also determined that an Al Qaeda operative in US custody disclosed he’d designed a method to neutralize Federal Air Marshals on a passenger plane as part of a plot to bring down a commercial airliner after having watched a network news report on the day in the life of an air marshal.
Despite assurances by TSA and FAMS that the many problems that were identified by the House Judiciary Committee and other federal investigative bodies are being addressed, in Jan. 2012, DHS’s Inspector General stated FAMS “is facing a difficult challenge. Tension and limited trust between non-supervisory and supervisory personnel, poor communication and limited transparency are not only damaging morale, but are also are at the center of fears of retaliation and perceptions that management is mistreating its workforce.”
The IG’s survey of the entire FAMS workforce found 47 percent “fear retaliation” for things like whistleblowing.
According to the IG, “Employees are protected against retaliation for two categories of activities – whistleblowing, and exercising their right to engage in certain protected activities.
The whistleblower category protects employees, former employees and applicants for employment against reprisal for lawfully disclosing information they reasonably believe is evidence of a violation of law, rule, or regulation in the workplace or by federal employees. It also protects against reprisal for disclosing gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or substantial or specific danger to public health or safety.
The second category protects employees from reprisal for exercising their right to engage in certain protected activities, including the following:
- Filing an appeal, complaint or grievance;
- Testifying for or assisting another in exercising such a right;
- Cooperating with or disclosing information to the Special Counsel or to an Inspector General; or
- Refusing to obey an order that would require the individual to violate a law.
While 76 percent of survey respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that people they work with cooperate to get the job done, the IG noted that the level of problems it uncovered “add unnecessary distraction at all levels at a time when mission tempo is high and many in the agency are becoming increasingly concerned about workforce burnout and fatigue.”
Biles told Homeland Security Today “We did train to look for certain indicators [of terrorist activity], but it’s nothing secret. Most of it is really profiling, and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Profiling really hasn’t changed much since the Federal Aviation Administration started doing it in the late 60s,’ except now terrorists don’t necessarily fit any particular age group or ethnic group,” which makes it even harder to identify possible terrorists.
Federal Air Marshals and counterterrorism authorities emphasized that Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadist organizations have been working for years to recruit and radicalize Western Muslims “who can blend in” among Americans and Europeans, have valid passports and no known criminal histories.
And this new breed of jihadist poses a continuing threat to commercial jetliners, which offer the potential for killing hundreds if just one of these terrorists is successful in bringing down one plane.