When Sky Marshals Do Bad Things

They're not even close to perfect:

Since 9/11, more than three dozen federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct, an investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism organization, has found. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.

The meta-problem is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job.

Before 9/11, the Air Marshal Service was a nearly forgotten force of 33 agents with a $4.4 million annual budget. Now housed in the Transportation Security Administration, the agency has a $786 million budget and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 air marshals, although the official number is classified.

And 3,000 to 4,000 is a lot of people to hire quickly; it's hard to weed out the bad eggs.

Posted on November 21, 2008 at 6:23 AM • 48 Comments

Comments

BillNovember 21, 2008 7:00 AM

"The meta-problem is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job."

That's true of politicians too.

Except MeNovember 21, 2008 7:07 AM

It's true of blog commenters too.

Maybe the solution is for the government to assign jobs to persons. Or, maybe we could assign jobs randomly.

JeroenNovember 21, 2008 7:21 AM

> drunken driving and domestic violence

While those are indeed "bad things" to be doing, they don't necessarily disqualify a person for the job of Air Marshall. As someone pointed out: Some of the 'hero' fire fighters and other emergency personnel that died on 9/11 probably beat their kids, had an alcohol problem or cheated on their wives.

BillNovember 21, 2008 7:21 AM

yup@Matt
"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it"
- Earl William Pitt, the Elder 1770.

Aside from unquantifiable dissuasion, how effective is a Sky Marshall anyway?

Use case - Cue 9/11 2009. Onboard is some shouting, confusion and a kafuffle in the aisles. A man brandishing a pistol stands up.

Q. How many seconds before that Marshall is overrun by passengers?

BillNovember 21, 2008 7:27 AM

@Jeroen

You're referring to an 'ad-hominem logical fallacy' attack.

If the nature of the ad-hominem is relevant to the job, it has value and stands, otherwise it does not.

So, an marshal breaking the law is relevant.

Similarly a drunk fire-fighter (say) is irrelevant, but an arsonist fire-fighter is relevant.

I admit this might not be the clearest of explanations but hopefully you'll get the gist :)

Moshe YudkowskyNovember 21, 2008 7:30 AM

"The meta-problem is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job."

Other than your prejudice against the entire sky-marshal program, do you have any support for this statement? Is there something intrinsic in the nature of the job that is different than, e.g., being a policeman, a bodyguard, or a freelance security pundit?

MECNovember 21, 2008 7:47 AM

@Jeroen:

[drunken driving and domestic violence] While those are indeed "bad things" to be doing, they don't necessarily disqualify a person for the job of Air Marshall.

Someone who would drive while drunk would also show up for work while drunk, and that a drunken Air Marshall would increase rather than decrease risk. A tendency to violent aggression against family members would indicate a tendency aggressive overreaction when on the job. Both of these traits make a person ineligible for a job that requires a cool head and good judgment in stressful situations.

jeffNovember 21, 2008 8:06 AM

@Except me

re: assigning jobs randomly

Don't laugh. For jobs that (a) don't require a huge amount of training or expertise and (b) require basic honesty, that's a pretty good idea. Think of jury duty. Also, rotate them on a regular basis.

The only problem is that I'm not sure that the job of sky marshall meets (a).

kybNovember 21, 2008 8:08 AM

"is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job"

I was trying to work out why this might be the case.

Do they do any sort of checks on sky marshalls? I imagine that if you stuck a bag of heroin in the barrel of your gun, nobody would notice.

I suppose when you think about the perks - paid to carry weapons between a number of international destinations, probably mainly drug producing ones. Probably subject to relatively little scrutiny, you can see how it might appeal to a certain undesirable set.

MoNovember 21, 2008 8:14 AM

You saw "Burn After Reading," right? A friend who's been long-term in DC area law enforcement said that the film got the HSA mindset and employee quality just right.

clvrmnkyNovember 21, 2008 8:18 AM

Someone who would drive while drunk would also show up for work while drunk

Er, care to qualify this statement? How, exactly, do you know that this trend may exist? I mean, why stop there. How about "anyone who would ever get drunk would get drunk whenever they wanted, endangering us all. Therefore, liquor should be banned."

Sound familiar?

There is a world of difference between a self-selection bias -- someone choosing a job that they know allows them to carry a gun and be a "cop" -- and being uncontrollable with your liquor.

Dave AronsonNovember 21, 2008 8:41 AM

Domestic violence is also relevant in that anybody convicted of domestic violence, even a *misdemeanor*, loses their right to keep and bear arms. (Whether that's good or bad in itself, is a point we can save for later, along with the whole RKBA debate in general.) To make exceptions for sky marshalls (or any other class of people) is to treat the rest of us like second class citizens.

christopherNovember 21, 2008 8:42 AM

@Bruce: I'm trying to imagine what kind of air marshal we want: the kind that thinks, "I want to protect flyers" versus the "I want to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan". I'm sure the smuggling question doesn't come up during the vetting process, but hey, if you have some rare insight into that process that no one else does, please share it.

Otherwise, taking a shot at law enforcement for being hypocritical is cheap and demeans the entire body of officers who do take their jobs seriously.

@Bill: Your explanation is relevant as it pertains to the execution of their duties, not their personal lives. If you expect air marshal or police officers to be model citizens, you're being far from fair. Expect professionalism on the job, period.

-C

Frank Ch. EiglerNovember 21, 2008 8:52 AM

"The meta-problem is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job."

Shame on you for this broad slur.

aaawwwNovember 21, 2008 8:52 AM

random position could prove effective also for qualified jobs: make strict exam for qualifications and assign worker to works at random

bobNovember 21, 2008 9:13 AM

My Deming-esque response when I heard about Bill Clinton's "put 100,000 more cops on the street" initiative was "you can either get quality or quantity, but not both". This seems similar.

Anytime you have a position that is very critical for both initiative and integrity, you need to do a VERY thorough background check (the kind that takes 6 months or more), no way can you ramp up to 3,000 in a few months. It would be better to have teams of 2 marshals so they can be checks on each other. And redistribute the teams every 6 months or so. And take the ridiculous hurdles out of the pilots' way so they can be armed as well.

freemanNovember 21, 2008 9:21 AM

Ad hominem is a logical fallacy where you attack an argument by attacking the person making, or a third party holding, the argument; it is NOT arguing against a person in any manner.

Law enforcers are professional thugs and bully-boys, what else can you expect from them?

dragonfrogNovember 21, 2008 9:21 AM

@bob

Actually, arming pilots is not a rational step - we trust them to fly a plane because they have spent years training to do so. They are not trained in armed combat.

Besides, when the take the _truly_ rational step of removing the door between the cockpit and the rest of the plane - separate toilet for the pilots, and they don't get out of there until the plane lands and they can open the outside door - then the only possible target for the pilot to shoot will be the co-pilot. Which, if you arm them all and wait long enough, is sure to happen once.

Michael AshNovember 21, 2008 9:30 AM

@Moshe Yudkowsky

"Other than your prejudice against the entire sky-marshal program, do you have any support for this statement? Is there something intrinsic in the nature of the job that is different than, e.g., being a policeman, a bodyguard, or a freelance security pundit?"

No, there's nothing different. It's true of those jobs as well, which is why there are so many bad cops. If we could weed out the people who want to be police simply because they want to have power over ordinary people we'd be a lot better off.

RoyNovember 21, 2008 9:36 AM

This is what happens when untrustworthy people are trusted by decree. If instead the marshals were searched just like the passengers, then most of the bad ones would decide against committing crimes on the job, and security would likely catch the others.

There is still the problem of what to do with an air marshal who's drunk on a plane. Remember, he's armed, and we're not. The sensible thing to prevent armed drunks is to disarm the marshal before boarding, which of course defeats the whole purpose of having a secret hired killer on board to protect the passenger.

The wise move would be to shut down this 'stopgap' program that has become an enduring institution.

Carlo GrazianiNovember 21, 2008 10:26 AM

"...it's hard to weed out the bad eggs"

Or sort the bad eggs from the chaff. One bad egg spoils the barrel. Bad eggs drive out good.

Better stop now -- I could mix metaphors until the bad eggs come home.

papa zitaNovember 21, 2008 10:45 AM

Example of what Bruce was saying - I had an acquaintance who, after drifting through a number of delivery jobs, suddenly started using and selling steroids and lifting weights. What do you think his next move was? Yes, he became a prison guard. It was profitable for guards to sell 'roids to inmates and I'm sure he made a pile doing it. Along with the extremely high wages (he made more than a CHP officer - the prison guard's union is notorious in CA), I'm sure if he didn't get caught (haven't seen him in 15 years), he's doing very well.

Terry KarneyNovember 21, 2008 10:47 AM

In reply to the comment about domestic violence. Even accepting, arguendo, that a person who will engage abuse of those close to them; for personal offenses at home, might be an acceptable choice for someone who is in the position of enforcing a whole lot of arbitrary rules about onboard airline behavior (just what constitutes failure to obey a cabin attendant?), the possession of a firearm (even one not owned by the person, but issued by an employer, to be used in the course of duty) by a person who has been convicted of any domestic abuse charge; or is subject to a domestic abuse related restraining order is a felony.

Which felony extends to the supervisor, should that supervisor be aware of such a disqualifying conviction, or restraining order.

More to the point, there is an intrinsic flaw with all policing... oversight. Add the hagiographic way in which we treat those who have the job (comment on the nature of the beast is seen as a slur at all who hold the job, not as what it is, a problem with the structural nature of self-selecting positions of arbitrary authority and power) and you get a toxic mess wherein institutional failures perpetuate for lack of will to put up with the abuse heaped on those who ask the questions.

I know this because I've been an army interrogator for 16 years, and the level of oversight has always been spotty. We got around it through some vigorous self-culling in the instructional phase; pushing a set of ideals almost as if they were religious (the immorality of torture, as well as the failure of the utilitarian argument). Even with that, the presence of a "few bad apples" at the top managed to soak the rot down to a lot of people at the bottom (And for much the same reason as the Air Marshall problem here, too many people added with too little training, led by people who didn't understand the actual art and practice).

Without some sort of outside agency (we used oversight by trained people who were not interrogating, and had the power to punish those who broke the rules, and the laws; with some leeway as to the nature of the offense, and the expected level of awareness; to back up steady training about what was prohibited), there is no way to keep all of those who have the possibility of absolute power from succumbing to the lure.

The problem with most police departments is they do not make the laspes public. That makes the risk of them being exposed seem greater (it will ruin the idea of perfection, which ideal they pretend they can attain), which encourages them to sweep things under the rug.

Nomen PublicusNovember 21, 2008 11:40 AM

How is the effectiveness of "Sky Marshals" measured? I can't recall a single report of a SM actually challenging a terrorist.

Do they use "terrorist actors" on live flights to challenge the SM?

Fred PNovember 21, 2008 12:02 PM

@dragonfrog:
"Besides, when the take the _truly_ rational step of removing the door between the cockpit and the rest of the plane - separate toilet for the pilots, and they don't get out of there until the plane lands and they can open the outside door - then the only possible target for the pilot to shoot will be the co-pilot. Which, if you arm them all and wait long enough, is sure to happen once."

I'm curious as to the risks of separation versus non-separation. Sure, non-separation makes a specific type of attack (hijackings) more difficult, but separation makes the following more difficult:

1) First aid for the pilot or co-pilot
2) Additional food/water for the pilot or co-pilot
3) Assistance (in the event that one or both of them have significant medical problems)
4) Assistance (from the co-pilot or pilot to the rest of the crew or a passenger)

Considering the additional costs of a bathroom, the above, and possibly the additional costs of an exit, I'm under-convinced that using this method would be a good thing in general.

BillyNovember 21, 2008 12:08 PM

Maybe the solution is for a judge in good standing to 'sentence' people to public office, and for positions of power like policeman, politician, etc, to specifically forbid any remuneration during the duration of their service.

ArtNovember 21, 2008 12:44 PM

I find it interesting that some people actually question Bruce's statement. Have you people ever met another human being? Do you know any police or law enforcement officers? Security guards? I do. I come from a "law enforcement" family and so does my wife. Four generations on my side and three on hers. Bruce is exactly right and everyone in our family would admit it during a family discussion though few would outside one. Very, very, few enter the law enforcement fields because their desire is to protect and serve. As far as the TSA and air marshalls go, I've heard it stated over and over what a sweet cushy job that would be, sitting on planes all day and hitting on flight attendants and hot passengers. It doesn't just attract those who like a little "power" but also those who don't like much work.

partdavidNovember 21, 2008 1:32 PM

@clvrmnky

'I mean, why stop there. How about "anyone who would ever get drunk would get drunk whenever they wanted, endangering us all.'

They aren't equivalent statements: someone who gets drunk, *then drives", has shown that they are not capable of using correct judgment about what activities are incompatible with being drunk, or they don't care to make that judgment.

It would also be reasonable, for example, to expect that someone who has committed fraud "privately", like kiting checks and the like, is more likely to embezzle from their employer given the opportunity, which is why this kind of criminal background is checked for when people are hired to positions of financial responsibility.

RHNovember 21, 2008 1:35 PM

@Frank:
Actually, that statement is not a slur. First off, it does not state that "if you are a marshal, then you fit this pattern." Second, it is a cold statistical truth. There is a set of actions which an Air Marshal is expected to do (such as fire a gun). When you look at the set of actions required, and the types of actions which attract those we dont want to be airmarshals, the two are surprisingly similar.

There's a similar pattern in lockpicking. The job requires tasks which often attract those who you don't want doing the lockpicking. The result? Lockpicking is a terribly closed art, where a master locksmith will not just train anyone... they first have to verify that the student is the type of person they want.

"the job requires the things which attract the types of people we don't want doing the job." does not say anything about the people actually doing the job. What it does say is that the verification process needs to be much more scrutinizing because there's a greater probability of getting bad eggs trying their luck.

If you were to suddenly increase the number of locksmiths by 100 fold, how many bad eggs do you think you'd get.

Random ReaderNovember 21, 2008 1:35 PM

@clvrmnky:

>> Someone who would drive while drunk would also show up for work while drunk

> Er, care to qualify this statement? How, exactly, do you know that this trend may exist? I mean, why stop there. How about "anyone who would ever get drunk would get drunk whenever they wanted, endangering us all. Therefore, liquor should be banned."

Er, did you pay attention to what you were quoting? Simply being drunk is not the problem. Driving while drunk IS the kind of behavior that does, indeed, endanger others. It's a sign of bad judgment, and someone who displays such behavior is not the kind of person who should be placed in the role of protecting others.

It doesn't really matter if you can prove they show up to work while drunk or not; the point is that they have already been shown to endanger others with reckless behavior.

DschoNovember 21, 2008 2:02 PM

I am _constantly_ amazed of people who say "I have nothing to hide" and do not spend a _millisecond_ on the thought who will be surveilling them.

Come on, think about all the people you met: who is the most likely to apply for a job that allows you to spy on others, or exercise power onto others? Exactly. I would not want to do it, either.

LyleNovember 21, 2008 2:08 PM

@dragonfrog:

I am under the impression that many commercial pilots are ex-military aviators, and thus are, in fact, trained in armed combat.

MitchNovember 21, 2008 2:57 PM

@dragonfrog:
"Besides, when the take the _truly_ rational step of removing the door between the cockpit and the rest of the plane..."

OK, try this hypothetical. Put a solid wall between the pilot and the passengers then this exchange:
"Take me to $COUNTRY of I shoot this stewardess."
[[BANG]]
"Take me to $COUNTRY of I shoot another stewardess."

If the intention was to crash the plane, you only need a "special" package in the luggage hold to do that.


...and back on topic, tell me again why we have Air Marshals? Didn't Flight 93 prove that we don't need them anymore? Any person drawing a gun on a flight is likely to be beat to death by fellow passengers, official looking badge or no. Seriously.

JohnNovember 21, 2008 3:16 PM

I'm sure there are quite a few holes in it, but it seems the most reasonable individuals on a plane to be armed, if it came to that, would be the pilots. The gun would only come into play in that case if there were a cockpit breach (i.e., there actually was an incident).

I'm not endorsing this, I see holes in it. But arming a marshall on a plane may, as one noted above, ignite a frenzy, plus would bring a gun into play before the cockpit is breached.

RigPigNovember 21, 2008 3:35 PM

@clvrmnky:

>> Someone who would drive while drunk would also show up for work while drunk

> Er, care to qualify this statement? How, exactly, do you know that this trend may exist? I mean, why stop there. How about "anyone who would ever get drunk would get drunk whenever they wanted, endangering us all. Therefore, liquor should be banned."


Actually there are health and safety statistics to support this, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Anyone who works in the oil patch can confirm this as an almost daily issue.

MailDeadDropNovember 22, 2008 1:15 AM

@dragonfrog: "then the only possible target for the pilot to shoot will be the co-pilot. Which, if you arm them all and wait long enough, is sure to happen once."

If you were to survey current pilots, you'll find that there are several pieces of equipment more likely to be shot before the co-pilot. (FMS, CVR, ...)

TroyNovember 22, 2008 7:21 AM

To people commenting on the "drunk driving and domestic violence" comment in the article, it's worth noting that the quote from the article is "range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring"

The use of "range from" seems to imply that the article author agrees with you in thinking that drunk driving and domestic violence are at the least offensive end of the range (of mentioned crimes) an air marshal can be charged with, in the context of suitability for their role.

UnspinNovember 22, 2008 8:34 AM

I'd agree with Bruce's comment that "3,000 to 4,000 is a lot of people to hire quickly; it's hard to weed out the bad eggs".

But it's difficult to regard the rest of this as anything other than spin-doctoring claptrap. "More than three dozen", out of 3,000 to 4,000, in a period of 7 years, is a rate of somewhere around 1 per 700 per annum. This is significantly lower than the population average. (About 5 times lower, in fact; bear in mind, to get this "more than three dozen", they have included some fairly common, relatively minor offences.)

No doubt we'd like it to be lower still, but there is nothing remarkable about the figure as it stands.

DavidNovember 22, 2008 10:48 AM

How to Spot an Air Marshall
If while standing around waiting to board your plane you see: Two guys show up at the last minute, no baggage, usually not dressed well (you know, blue jeans, t-shirt), no boarding pass, they walk up to the airline counter and are escorted straight into the plane, and they sit in first class (usually on the back row of first), you have Air Marshalls on the flight. I see this about once every two months (I fly every week).

novaphileNovember 22, 2008 9:17 PM

@David
In Australia, I'll head straight to the airport if my interstate business is concluded early...

Often I'll get on an earlier flight (than my booked flight), by showing photo ID at the gate (I usually fly on an e-ticket - i.e. no paper ticket).

This has caused other passengers to conclude that I am an air marshal - but I'm just a Business Analyst.

:-)

Terry KarneyNovember 23, 2008 5:25 PM

lyle: 1: Most Air Force pilots aren't combat pilots.

2: There is a world of difference between firing missiles, dropping bombs and strafing with cannon; and pointing a pistol/rifle at someone and killing them at close quarters, where there are dozens of non-threatening people in the background.

Which is part of why arming pilots, even if they were in the air force, is a bad idea.

supersnailNovember 24, 2008 6:43 AM

Whats really happened here is a classic scalability problem.
Taking a small organisation which works well because everbody knows and trusts each other, and, turning it into a large organisation without putting into place the policies, procedures and checks which a large organisation requires.
In any well functioning large group (say the U.S. Marine core) these rules and customs have evolved over decades, and, whats more they apply only to the specific group; the "culture" which work for the Marine Core would be disaterous if applied to the National Parks.
This is why throwing money at problems seldom works!

ripNovember 24, 2008 9:10 AM

The 'good apples' never do anything to remove the bad apples, because they know that they are members of a racketeer influenced corrupt organization that uses authority to hide corruption. The bad apples often rise to the top because the type of authority they practice is often unconstitutional and plain corrupt. There are no truely good apples in a corrupt organization, but the claim that there are is simply used to cover for the bad and worse ones.
There is a known corelation between badges, guns, alcohol, roid rage, and happy shots while drunk. The 'good apples' know all about it, But they never make trouble for the corrupt. In fact, when minnesota passed a law saying people with domestic violence convictions cannot own guns, the courts vacated the convictions of police officers, and the police no longer will respond to domestic violence calls involving officers. Because that may cause someone to lose the only job that they cannot be fired from.

bobNovember 24, 2008 10:25 AM

They could build aircraft using a "modular" structure. The passengers are put into a lightweight "sortie can", very similar to the interior of a modern airliner, that contained seats, overhead bins, windows, luggage, flight attendants, galley and lavatories. This would be attached at "boarding time", basically just towed underneath and lifted up into an airframe that had wings, engines, cockpit (with lav) and pilots (I picture a high-wing with the module pushed up into it from underneath, like the Sikorski Skycrane).

There would be no path inside from the crew portion to the cargo/pax component, just electricity, communications and air connectors, so no hijack would be possible. The disadvantage would be the overhead cost for the modular parts (mostly a weight penalty).

But some other advantages would be the ability for the airframe to instantly be able to drop off the module, refuel and pick up a full module without having to wait for embark/debark or cabin servicing, so fewer actual airframes and pilots are needed. Less space would be needed for a terminal because the wings would no longer be in the way while people.

If an airframe breaks down, just grab another. Also, you could switch from pax to cargo instantly by loading the other type of module.

You could even have special-purpose modules like air-refueling, fire-fighting, luxury charter, medevac or surveillance.

Davi OttenheimerNovember 24, 2008 11:14 AM

Exact kind of person?

The quote following your point is about the budget.

The quote preceding your point suggests accusations and charges have been filed, but I see nothing about a "type of person".

Perhaps the question is what the rate of drunken driving, domestic violence, aiding human-trafficking ring, and trying to smuggle explosives is for the country as a whole. And if the rate is the same or higher than among this group would you suggest that Americans are not the "type of person" you want on the job?

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