Entries Tagged "air marshals"

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Australian Security Theater

I like the quote at the end of this excerpt:

Aviation officials have questioned the need for such a strong permanent police presence at airports, suggesting they were there simply “to make the government look tough on terror”.

One senior executive said in his experience, the officers were expensive window-dressing.

“When you add the body scanners, the ritual humiliation of old ladies with knitting needles and the farcical air marshals, it all adds up to billions of dollars to prevent what? A politician being called soft on terror, that’s what,” he said.

Posted on March 19, 2012 at 6:38 AMView Comments

The Security Threat of Forged Law-Enforcement Credentials

Here’s a U.S. Army threat assessment of forged law-enforcement credentials.

The authors bought a bunch of fake badges:

Between November 2009 and March 2010, undercover investigators were able to purchase nearly perfect counterfeit badges for all of the Department of Defense’s military criminal investigative organizations to include the Army Criminal Investigation Command (Army CID), Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), and the Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Division (USMC CID). Also, purchased was the badge for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS).

Also available for purchase were counterfeit badges of 42 other federal law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Secret Service, and the US Marshals Service.

Of the other federal law enforcement agency badges available, the investigators found exact reproductions of the badges issued to Federal Air Marshals, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Screeners, TSA Inspectors, and Special Agents of the TSA Office of Inspector General.

Average price: $60.

Then, they tried using them:

During the period of January to June 2010, undercover investigators utilized fraudulent badges and credentials of the DoD’s military criminal investigative organizations to penetrate the security at: 6 military installations; 2 federal courthouses; and 3 state buildings in the New York and New Jersey area.


Once being granted access to the military installation or federal facility, the investigators proceeded to areas that were designed as “Restricted Area” or “Authorized Personnel Only” and were able to wander around without being challenged by employees or security personnel. On one military installation, investigators were able to go to the police station and request local background checks on several fictitious names. All that was required was displaying the fraudulent badge and credentials to a police officer working the communications desk.

The authors didn’t try it getting through airport security, but they mentioned a 2000 GAO report where investigators did:

The investigation found that investigators were 100% successful in penetrating 19 federal sites and 2 commercial airports by claiming to be law enforcement officers and entering the facilities unchecked by security where they could have carried weapons, listening devices, explosives, chemical/biological agents and other such materials.

Websites are listed in the report, if you want to buy your own fake badge and carry a gun onto an airplane.

I’ve written about this general problem before:

When faced with a badge, most people assume it’s legitimate. And even if they wanted to verify the badge, there’s no real way for them to do so.

The only solution, if this counts as one, is to move to real-time verification. A credit card used to be a credential; it gave the bearer certain privileges. But the problem of forged and stolen credit cards was so pervasive that the industry moved to a system where now the card is mostly a pointer to a database. Your passport, when you present it to the customs official in your home country, is basically the same thing. I’d like to be able to photograph a law-enforcement badge with my camera, send it to some police website, and get back a real-time verification—with picture—that the officer is legit.

Of course, that opens up an entire new set of database security issues, but I think they’re more manageable than what we have now.

Posted on January 13, 2011 at 8:00 AMView Comments

Sky Marshals Flying First Class

I regularly say that security decisions are primarily made for non-security reasons. This article about the placement of sky marshals on airplanes is an excellent example. Basically, the airlines would prefer they fly coach instead of first class.

Airline CEOs met recently with TSA administrator John Pistole and officials from the Federal Air Marshal Service requesting the TSA to reconsider the placement of marshals based on current security threats.

“Our concern is far less revenue and more that we have defenses appropriate to the threat,” said James May, chief executive of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s lobbying group. “We think there needs to be an even distribution, particularly when we have multiple agents on board.”


By law, airlines must provide seats to marshals at no cost in any cabin requested. With first-class and business-class seats in particular, the revenue loss to airlines can be substantial because they can’t sell last-minute tickets or upgrades, and travelers sometimes get bumped to the back or lose out on upgrade opportunities. When travelers do get bumped, airlines are barred from divulging why the first-class seat was unexpectedly taken away, to keep the presence of a marshal a secret. Bumped travelers—airlines can’t disclose how many passengers are affected—typically get coach seats and refunds on the cash or miles they paid for the better seat.

When I list the few improvements to airline security since 9/11, I don’t include sky marshals.

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): An article from The Economist.

Posted on October 4, 2010 at 1:55 PMView Comments

The Effectiveness of Air Marshals

Air marshals are being arrested faster than air marshals are making arrests.

Actually, there have been many more arrests of Federal air marshals than that story reported, quite a few for felony offenses. In fact, more air marshals have been arrested than the number of people arrested by air marshals.

We now have approximately 4,000 in the Federal Air Marshals Service, yet they have made an average of just 4.2 arrests a year since 2001. This comes out to an average of about one arrest a year per 1,000 employees.

Now, let me make that clear. Their thousands of employees are not making one arrest per year each. They are averaging slightly over four arrests each year by the entire agency. In other words, we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest. Let me repeat that: we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest.

Posted on April 8, 2010 at 6:22 AMView Comments

Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (7)

Session Six—”Terror”—chaired by Stuart Schechter.

Bill Burns, Decision Research (suggested reading: The Diffusion of Fear: Modeling Community Response to a Terrorist Strike), studies social reaction to risk. He discussed his theoretical model of how people react to fear events, and data from the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings in the UK, and the 2008 financial collapse. Basically, we can’t remain fearful. No matter what happens, fear spikes immediately after and recovers 45 or so days afterwards. He believes that the greatest mistake we made after 9/11 was labeling the event as terrorism instead of an international crime.

Chris Cocking, London Metropolitan University (suggested reading: Effects of social identity on responses to emergency mass evacuation), looks at the group behavior of people responding to emergencies. Traditionally, most emergency planning is based on the panic model: people in crowds are prone to irrational behavior and panic. There’s also a social attachment model that predicts that social norms don’t break down in groups. He prefers a self-categorization approach: disasters create a common identity, which results in orderly and altruistic behavior among strangers. The greater the threat, the greater the common identity, and spontaneous resilience can occur. He displayed a photograph of “panic” in New York on 9/11 and showed how it wasn’t panic at all. Panic seems to be more a myth than a reality. This has policy implications during an event: provide people with information, and people are more likely to underreact than overreact, if there is overreaction, it’s because people are acting as individuals rather than groups, so those in authority should encourage a sense of collective identity. “Crowds can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

Richard John, University of Southern California (suggested reading: Decision Analysis by Proxy for the Rational Terrorist), talked about the process of social amplification of risk (with respect to terrorism). Events result in relatively small losses; it’s the changes in behavior following an event that result in much greater losses. There’s a dynamic of risk perception, and it’s very contextual. He uses vignettes to study how risk perception changes over time, and discussed some of the studies he’s conducting and ideas for future studies.

Mark Stewart, University of Newcastle, Australia (suggested reading: A risk and cost-benefit assessment of United States aviation security measures; Risk and Cost-Benefit Assessment of Counter-Terrorism Protective Measures to Infrastructure), examines infrastructure security and whether the costs exceed the benefits. He talked about cost/benefit trade-off, and how to apply probabilistic terrorism risk assessment; then, he tried to apply this model to the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service. His result: they’re not worth it. You can quibble with his data, but the real value is a transparent process. During the discussion, I said that it is important to realize that risks can’t be taken in isolation, that anyone making a security trade-off is balancing several risks: terrorism risks, political risks, the personal risks to his career, etc.

John Adams, University College London (suggested reading: Deus e Brasileiro?; Can Science Beat Terrorism?; Bicycle bombs: a further inquiry), applies his risk thermostat model to terrorism. He presented a series of amusing photographs of overreactions to risk, most of them not really about risk aversion but more about liability aversion. He talked about bureaucratic paranoia, as well as bureaucratic incitements to paranoia, and how this is beginning to backfire. People treat risks differently, depending on whether they are voluntary, impersonal, or imposed, and whether people have total control, diminished control, or no control.

Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen (suggested reading: The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger), talked about how the media covers risks, threats, attacks, etc. He talked about the various ways the media screws up, all of which were familiar to everyone. His thesis is not that the media gets things wrong in order to increase readership/viewership and therefore profits, but that the media gets things wrong because reporters are human. Bad news bias is not a result of the media hyping bad news, but the natural human tendency to remember the bad more than the good. The evening news is centered around stories because people—including reporters—respond to stories, and stories with novelty, emotion, and drama are better stories.

Some of the discussion was about the nature of panic: whether and where it exists, and what it looks like. Someone from the audience questioned whether panic was related to proximity to the event; someone else pointed out that people very close to the 7/7 bombings took pictures and made phone calls—and that there was no evidence of panic. Also, on 9/11 pretty much everyone below where the airplanes struck the World Trade Center got out safely; and everyone above couldn’t get out, and died. Angela Sasse pointed out that the previous terrorist attack against the World Trade Center, and the changes made in evacuation procedures afterwards, contributed to the lack of panic on 9/11. Bill Burns said that the purest form of panic is a drowning person. Jean Camp asked whether the recent attacks against women’s health providers should be classified as terrorism, or whether we are better off framing it as crime. There was also talk about sky marshals and their effectiveness. I said that it isn’t sky marshals that are a deterrent, but the idea of sky marshals. Terence Taylor said that increasing uncertainty on the part of the terrorists is, in itself, a security measure. There was also a discussion about how risk-averse terrorists are; they seem to want to believe they have an 80% or 90% change of success before they will launch an attack.

Next, lunch—and two final sessions this afternoon.

Adam Shostack’s liveblogging is here. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments. Matt Blaze’s audio is here.

Posted on June 12, 2009 at 12:01 PMView Comments

Flying While Armed

Two years ago, all it took to bypass airport security was filling out a form:

Grant was flying from Boston to San Diego on Jan. 1, 2007, when he approached an American Airlines ticket counter at Logan International Airport and flashed a badge he carries as a part-time assistant harbor master in Chatham, according to federal prosecutors.

Grant, a medical supplies salesman, also filled out a “flying while armed” form and wrote that he worked for the Department of Homeland Security, prosecutors said.


He allegedly did the same on his return trip to Boston three days later.

But this time, according to court documents, he was invited into the cockpit, was told the identity of the two air marshals on the flight, and was informed who else on the plane was armed, which raises security concerns.

Since then, the TSA has made changes in procedure.

At the airport, law enforcers now need advance permission to fly armed.

“We have added substantial layers of security to this process,” said TSA spokesman George Naccara.

The case took almost two years to come to light so federal authorities could tighten airport security and prevent similar incidents, said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

“The flying public can be assured that this has led to a change of procedures to ensure that credentials are properly vetted,” said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

Posted on December 9, 2008 at 7:22 AMView Comments

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 AMView Comments

Sky Marshals on the No-Fly List

If this weren’t so sad, it would be funny:

The problem with federal air marshals (FAM) names matching those of suspected terrorists on the no-fly list has persisted for years, say air marshals familiar with the situation.

One air marshal said it has been “a major problem, where guys are denied boarding by the airline.”

“In some cases, planes have departed without any coverage because the airline employees were adamant they would not fly,” the air marshal said. “I’ve seen guys actually being denied boarding.”

A second air marshal says one agent “has been getting harassed for six years because his exact name is on the no-fly list.”

Another article.

Seriously—if these people can’t get their names off the list, what hope do the rest of us have? Not that the no-fly list has any real value, anyway.

Posted on May 2, 2008 at 7:14 AMView Comments

Weird Terrorist Threat Story from the Raleigh Airport

This is all strange:

In a telephone interview, Fischvogt also told me, “we received word from the pilot about the suspicious activity before the flight landed.” Fischvogt explained that when Flight 518 landed, it sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes before FBI “took jurisdiction,” boarded the plane and arrested two people. DHS and local law enforcement were also present on the tarmac but “FBI took over the sight and the situation,” Fischvogt said.

“Wait a minute,” I asked, “The passengers were stuck inside the plane with two bad guys for 45 minutes before law enforcement boarded the aircraft?” I wanted to make sure I heard Fischvogt correctly.

“Yes,” Fischvogt confirmed.

Consider the agencies present 24/7 at the federalized Raleigh-Durham International Airport: FBI, DHS, (TSA & Federal Air Marshal Service), Joint Terrorism Task Force, ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) and airport police. And yet it took seven law enforcement agencies some forty-five minutes to put a single officer on the plane to counter the threat and secure the aircraft?

My analysis is that the delay was caused by FBI and DHS fighting over who had jurisdiction; protocol over ‘acts of air piracy’ are a constant source of bickering between the two agencies and have been the subject of at least one DHS Inspector General’s Report.

Of course the threat was a false alarm, but still….

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): Read the comments. The author of this blog seems to be a fear-mongering nutcase. (I should have read more about the source before posting this.)

Posted on October 8, 2007 at 1:56 PMView Comments

Conversation with Kip Hawley, TSA Administrator (Part 5)

This is Part 5 of a five-part series. Link to whole thing.

BS: So far, we’ve only talked about passengers. What about airport workers? Nearly one million workers move in and out of airports every day without ever being screened. The JFK plot, as laughably unrealistic as it was, highlighted the security risks of airport workers. As with any security problem, we need to secure the weak links, rather than make already strong links stronger. What about airport employees, delivery vehicles, and so on?

KH: I totally agree with your point about a strong base level of security everywhere and not creating large gaps by over-focusing on one area. This is especially true with airport employees. We do background checks on all airport employees who have access to the sterile area. These employees are in the same places doing the same jobs day after day, so when someone does something out of the ordinary, it immediately stands out. They serve as an additional set of eyes and ears throughout the airport.

Even so, we should do more on airport employees and my House testimony of April 19 gives details of where we’re heading. The main point is that everything you need for an attack is already inside the perimeter of an airport. For example, why take lighters from people who work with blowtorches in facilities with millions of gallons of jet fuel?

You could perhaps feel better by setting up employee checkpoints at entry points, but you’d hassle a lot of people at great cost with minimal additional benefit, and a smart, patient terrorist could find a way to beat you. Today’s random, unpredictable screenings that can and do occur everywhere, all the time (including delivery vehicles, etc.) are harder to defeat. With the latter, you make it impossible to engineer an attack; with the former, you give the blueprint for exactly that.

BS: There’s another reason to screen pilots and flight attendants: they go through the same security lines as passengers. People have to remember that it’s not pilots being screened, it’s people dressed as pilots. You either have to implement a system to verify that people dressed as pilots are actual pilots, or just screen everybody. The latter choice is far easier.

I want to ask you about general philosophy. Basically, there are three broad ways of defending airplanes: preventing bad people from getting on them (ID checks), preventing bad objects from getting on them (passenger screening, baggage screening), and preventing bad things from happening on them (reinforcing the cockpit door, sky marshals). The first one seems to be a complete failure, the second one is spotty at best. I’ve always been a fan of the third. Any future developments in that area?

KH: You are too eager to discount the first—stopping bad people from getting on planes. That is the most effective! Don’t forget about all the intel work done partnering with other countries to stop plots before they get here (UK liquids, NY subway), all the work done to keep them out either through no-flys (at least several times a month) or by Customs & Border Protection on their way in, and law enforcement once they are here (Ft. Dix). Then, you add the behavior observation (both uniformed and not) and identity validation (as we take that on) and that’s all before they get to the checkpoint.

The screening-for-things part, we’ve discussed, so I’ll jump to in-air measures. Reinforced, locked cockpit doors and air marshals are indeed huge upgrades since 9/11. Along the same lines, you have to consider the role of the engaged flight crew and passengers—they are quick to give a heads-up about suspicious behavior and they can, and do, take decisive action when threatened. Also, there are thousands of flights covered by pilots who are qualified as law enforcement and are armed, as well as the agents from other government entities like the Secret Service and FBI who provide coverage as well. There is also a fair amount of communications with the flight deck during flights if anything comes up en route—either in the aircraft or if we get information that would be of interest to them. That allows “quiet” diversions or other preventive measures. Training is, of course, important too. Pilots need to know what to do in the event of a missile sighting or other event, and need to know what we are going to do in different situations. Other things coming: better air-to-ground communications for air marshals and flight information, including, possibly, video.

So, when you boil it down, keeping the bomb off the plane is the number one priority. A terrorist has to know that once that door closes, he or she is locked into a confined space with dozens, if not hundreds, of zero-tolerance people, some of whom may be armed with firearms, not to mention the memory of United Flight 93.

BS: I’ve read repeated calls to privatize airport security: to return it to the way it was pre-9/11. Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but I’d like your opinion on the question. And regardless of what you think should happen, do you think it will happen?

KH: From an operational security point of view, I think it works both ways. So it is not a strategic issue for me.

SFO, our largest private airport, has excellent security and is on a par with its federalized counterparts (in fact, I am on a flight from there as I write this). One current federalized advantage is that we can surge resources around the system with no notice; essentially, the ability to move from anywhere to anywhere and mix TSOs with federal air marshals in different force packages. We would need to be sure we don’t lose that interchangeability if we were to expand privatized screening.

I don’t see a major security or economic driver that would push us to large-scale privatization. Economically, the current cost-plus model makes it a better deal for the government in smaller airports than in bigger. So, maybe more small airports will privatize. If Congress requires collective bargaining for our TSOs, that will impose an additional overhead cost of about $500 million, which would shift the economic balance significantly toward privatized screening. But unless that happens, I don’t see major change in this area.

BS: Last question. I regularly criticize overly specific security measures, because forcing the terrorists to make minor modifications in their tactics doesn’t make us any safer. We’ve talked about specific airline threats, but what about airplanes as a specific threat? On the one hand, if we secure our airlines and the terrorists all decide instead to bomb shopping malls, we haven’t improved our security very much. On the other hand, airplanes make particularly attractive targets for several reasons. One, they’re considered national symbols. Two, they’re a common and important travel vehicle, and are deeply embedded throughout our economy. Three, they travel to distant places where the terrorists are. And four, the failure mode is severe: a small bomb drops the plane out of the sky and kills everyone. I don’t expect you to give back any of your budget, but when do we have “enough” airplane security as compared with the rest of our nation’s infrastructure?

KH: Airplanes are a high-profile target for terrorists for all the reasons you cited. The reason we have the focus we do on aviation is because of the effect the airline system has on our country, both economically and psychologically. We do considerable work (through grants and voluntary agreements) to ensure the safety of surface transportation, but it’s less visible to the public because people other than ones in TSA uniforms are taking care of that responsibility.

We look at the aviation system as one component in a much larger network that also includes freight rail, mass transit, highways, etc. And that’s just in the U.S. Then you add the world’s transportation sectors—it’s all about the network.

The only components that require specific security measures are the critical points of failure—and they have to be protected at virtually any cost. It doesn’t matter which individual part of the network is attacked—what matters is that the network as a whole is resilient enough to operate even with losing one or more components.

The network approach allows various transportation modes to benefit from our layers of security. Take our first layer: intel. It is fundamental to our security program to catch terrorists long before they get to their target, and even better if we catch them before they get into our country. Our intel operation works closely with other international and domestic agencies, and that information and analysis benefits all transportation modes.

Dogs have proven very successful at detecting explosives. They work in airports and they work in mass transit venues as well. As we test and pilot technologies like millimeter wave in airports, we assess their viability in other transportation modes, and vice versa.

To get back to your question, we’re not at the point where we can say “enough” for aviation security. But we’re also aware of the attractiveness of other modes and continue to use the network to share resources and lessons learned.

BS: Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate both your time and your candor.

KH: I enjoyed the exchange and appreciated your insights. Thanks for the opportunity.

Posted on August 3, 2007 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.