Entries Tagged "air marshals"

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Sky Marshals in Australia

Their cost-effectiveness is being debated:

They’ve cost the taxpayer $106 million so far, they travel in business class, and over the past four years Australia’s armed air marshals have had to act only once—subduing a 68-year-old man who produced a small knife on a flight from Sydney to Cairns in 2003.

I have not seen any similar cost analysis from the United States.

Posted on March 8, 2007 at 7:37 AMView Comments

Sky Marshals Name Innocents to Meet Quota

One news source is reporting that sky marshals are reporting on innocent people in order to meet a quota:

The air marshals, whose identities are being concealed, told 7NEWS that they’re required to submit at least one report a month. If they don’t, there’s no raise, no bonus, no awards and no special assignments.

“Innocent passengers are being entered into an international intelligence database as suspicious persons, acting in a suspicious manner on an aircraft … and they did nothing wrong,” said one federal air marshal.


These unknowing passengers who are doing nothing wrong are landing in a secret government document called a Surveillance Detection Report, or SDR. Air marshals told 7NEWS that managers in Las Vegas created and continue to maintain this potentially dangerous quota system.

“Do these reports have real life impacts on the people who are identified as potential terrorists?” 7NEWS Investigator Tony Kovaleski asked.

“Absolutely,” a federal air marshal replied.


What kind of impact would it have for a flying individual to be named in an SDR?

“That could have serious impact … They could be placed on a watch list. They could wind up on databases that identify them as potential terrorists or a threat to an aircraft. It could be very serious,” said Don Strange, a former agent in charge of air marshals in Atlanta. He lost his job attempting to change policies inside the agency.

This is so insane, it can’t possibly be true. But I have been stunned before by the stupidity of the Department of Homeland Security.

EDITED TO ADD (7/27): This is what Brock Meeks said on David Farber’s IP mailing list:

Well, it so happens that I was the one that BROKE this story… way back in 2004. There were at least two offices, Miami and Las Vegas that had this quota system for writing up and filing “SDRs.”

The requirement was totally renegade and NOT endorsed by Air Marshal officials in Washington. The Las Vegas Air Marshal field office was (I think he’s retired now) by a real cowboy at the time, someone that caused a lot of problems for the Washington HQ staff. (That official once grilled an Air Marshal for three hours in an interrogation room because he thought the air marshal was source of mine on another story. The air marshal was then taken off flight status and made to wash the office cars for two weeks… I broke that story, too. And no, the punished air marshal was never a source of mine.)

Air marshals told they were filing false reports, as they did below, just to hit the quota.

When my story hit, those in the offices of Las Vegas and Miami were reprimanded and the practice was ordered stopped by Washington HQ.

I suppose the biggest question I have for this story is the HYPE of what happens to these reports. They do NOT place the person mention on a “watch list.” These reports, filed on Palm Pilot PDAs, go into an internal Air Marshal database that is rarely seen and pretty much ignored by other intelligence agencies, from all sources I talked to.

Why? Because the air marshals are seen as little more than “sky cops” and these SDRs considered little more than “field interviews” that cops sometimes file when they question someone loitering at a 7-11 too late at night.

The quota system, if it is still going on, is heinous, but it hardly results in the big spooky data collection scare that this cheapjack Denver “investigative” TV reporter makes it out to be.

The quoted former field official from Atlanta, Don Strange, did, in fact, lose his job over trying to chance internal policies. He was the most well-liked official among the rank and file and the Atlanta office, under his command, had the highest morale in the nation.

Posted on July 25, 2006 at 9:55 AMView Comments

Forged Credentials and Security

In Beyond Fear, I wrote about the difficulty of verifying credentials. Here’s a real story about that very problem:

When Frank Coco pulled over a 24-year-old carpenter for driving erratically on Interstate 55, Coco was furious. Coco was driving his white Chevy Caprice with flashing lights and had to race in front of the young man and slam on his brakes to force him to stop.

Coco flashed his badge and shouted at the driver, Joe Lilja: “I’m a cop and when I tell you to pull over, you pull over, you motherf——!”

Coco punched Lilja in the face and tried to drag him out of his car.

But Lilja wasn’t resisting arrest. He wasn’t even sure what he’d done wrong.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s hitting me,’ ” Lilja recalled.

It was only after Lilja sped off to escape—leading Coco on a tire-squealing, 90-mph chase through the southwest suburbs—that Lilja learned the truth.

Coco wasn’t a cop at all.

He was a criminal.

There’s no obvious way to solve this. This is some of what I wrote in Beyond Fear:

Authentication systems suffer when they are rarely used and when people aren’t trained to use them.


Imagine you’re on an airplane, and Man A starts attacking a flight attendant. Man B jumps out of his seat, announces that he’s a sky marshal, and that he’s taking control of the flight and the attacker. (Presumably, the rest of the plane has subdued Man A by now.) Man C then stands up and says: “Don’t believe Man B. He’s not a sky marshal. He’s one of Man A’s cohorts. I’m really the sky marshal.”

What do you do? You could ask Man B for his sky marshal identification card, but how do you know what an authentic one looks like? If sky marshals travel completely incognito, perhaps neither the pilots nor the flight attendants know what a sky marshal identification card looks like. It doesn’t matter if the identification card is hard to forge if person authenticating the credential doesn’t have any idea what a real card looks like.


Many authentication systems are even more informal. When someone knocks on your door wearing an electric company uniform, you assume she’s there to read the meter. Similarly with deliverymen, service workers, and parking lot attendants. When I return my rental car, I don’t think twice about giving the keys to someone wearing the correct color uniform. And how often do people inspect a police officer’s badge? The potential for intimidation makes this security system even less effective.

Posted on January 13, 2006 at 7:00 AMView Comments

A Pilot on Airline Security

Good comments from Salon’s pilot-in-residence on airline security:

In the days ahead, you can expect sharp debate on whether the killing was justified, and whether the nation’s several thousand air marshals—their exact number is a tightly guarded secret—undergo sufficient training. How are they taught to deal with mentally ill individuals who might be unpredictable and unstable, but not necessarily dangerous? Are the rules of engagement overly aggressive?

Those are fair questions, but not the most important ones.

Wednesday’s incident fulfills what many of us predicted ever since the Federal Air Marshals Service was widely expanded following the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington: The first person killed by a sky marshal, whether through accident or misunderstanding, would not be a terrorist. In a lot of ways, Alpizar is the latest casualty of Sept. 11. He is not the victim of a trigger-happy federal marshal but of our own, now fully metastasized security mania.


Terrorists, meanwhile, won’t waste their time on schemes with such an extreme likelihood of failure.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us. In America, reasoned debate and clear thinking aren’t the useful currencies they once were, and backlash to the TSA’s announcement has come from a host of unexpected sources—members of Congress, flight attendants unions and families of Sept. 11 victims.

“The Bush administration proposal is just asking the next Mohammed Atta to move from box cutters to scissors,” said Rep. Markey.

Actually, that Atta and his henchmen used box cutters to commandeer four aircraft means very little. Just as effectively, they could have employed snapped-off pieces of plastic, shattered bottles or, for that matter, their own bare fists and some clever wile. Sept. 11 had nothing to do with exploiting airport security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset at the time. What weapons the terrorists had or didn’t have is essentially irrelevant. Hijackings, to that point in history, were perpetrated mainly through bluff, and while occasionally deadly, they seldom resulted in more than a temporary inconvenience—diversions to Cuba or cities in the Middle East. The moment American flight 11 collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center, everything changed; good luck to the next skyjacker stupid enough to attempt the same stunt with anything less than a flamethrower in his hand.

And finally:

This is almost acceptable, if only there weren’t so many hours of squandered time and manpower in the balance. Nobody wants weapons on a jetliner. But, more critical, neither do we want to bog down the system. The longer we fuss at the metal detectors over low-threat objects, the greater we expose ourselves to the very serious dangers of bombs and explosives. TSA is not in need of more screeners; it’s in need of reallocation of personnel and resources.

It was, we shouldn’t forget, 17 years ago this month that Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland by a stash of Semtex hidden inside a Toshiba radio in a piece of checked luggage. Then as now, and perhaps for years to come, explosives were the most serious high-level threat facing commercial aviation. European authorities were quick to implement a sweeping revision of luggage-screening protocols designed to thwart another Lockerbie. It took almost 15 years, and the catastrophe of Sept. 11, before America began to do the same—and a comprehensive system still isn’t fully in place.

Flying was and remains exceptionally safe, but whether that’s because or in spite of the system is tough to tell. The “war on terror” has left us fighting many enemies—some real, many imagined. We’ll figure things out at some point, maybe. Until then, dead in Miami, Rigoberto Alpizar is yet more collateral damage.

Posted on December 12, 2005 at 1:21 PMView Comments

Sky Marshal Shooting in Miami

I have heretofore refrained from writing about the Miami false-alarm terrorist incident. For those of you who have spent the last few days in an isolation chamber, sky marshals shot and killed a mentally ill man they believed to be a terrorist. The shooting happened on the ground, in the jetway. The man claimed he had a bomb and wouldn’t stop when ordered to by sky marshals. At least, that’s the story.

I’ve read the reports, the claims of the sky marshals and the counterclaims of some witnesses. Whatever happened—and it’s possible that we’ll never know—it does seem that this incident isn’t the same as the British shooting of a Brazilian man on July 22.

I do want to make two points, though.

One, any time you have an officer making split-second life and death decisions, you’re going to have mistakes. I hesitate to second-guess the sky marshals on the ground; they were in a very difficult position. But the way to minimize mistakes is through training. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this sort of thing read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Two, I’m not convinced the sky marshals’ threat model matches reality. Mentally ill people are far more common than terrorists. People who claim to have a bomb and don’t are far more common than people who actually do. The real question we should be asking here is: what should the appropriate response be to this low-probability threat?

EDITED TO ADD (12/11): Good Salon article on the topic.

Posted on December 9, 2005 at 1:28 PMView Comments

Sensible Security from New Zealand

I like the way this guy thinks about security as a trade-off:

In the week United States-led forces invaded Iraq, the service was receiving a hoax bomb call every two or three hours, but not one aircraft was delayed. Security experts decided the cost of halting flights far outweighed the actual risk to those on board.

It’s a short article, and in it Mark Everitt, General Manager of the New Zealand Aviation Security Service, says that small knives should be allowed on flights, and that sky marshals should not.

Before 9/11, New Zealand domestic flights had no security at all, because there simply wasn’t anywhere to hijack a flight to.

Posted on December 3, 2004 at 10:00 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.