A Culture Lost – Five Ways Federal Air Marshals Have Changed Since 9/11

Federal Air Marshals have been protecting U.S. flagged aircraft for over fifty years. Ever since the first aircraft hijacking in Peru in 1931, their position has been intricately woven into the fabric of aviation history. Since that initial spark, a fire has raged in civil aviation security, seeking to tame the many criminal and terrorist threats that have menaced the entire aviation system. In 1961 President Kennedy, realizing that the threat against aviation was a major problem, called for the use of armed guards on select flights. A short time later in March of 1962, the first group of air marshals were introduced into the aviation security system by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) . Since then, the Federal Air Marshal Service has gone through a number of changes that have ebbed and flowed with the tide of terrorism and criminal acts targeting aviation. However the most rapid changes to their ranks came after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Air MarshalThe first change to the Federal Air Marshal Service occurred immediately after the attacks of 9/11. The U.S. had just 33 air marshals working in a full time capacity on 9/11, and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks the Bush Administration pushed for a massive and rapid expansion of the program. This included the hiring, training, and activation of 600 air marshals within one month and thousands more in the following months and years. The training of such a large number of air marshals was not an easy task. One example of this was in the firearms training standard that air marshals were held to. Prior to 9/11, this standard had placed an air marshal within the top 1% of all shooters in the world. However, this  standard was so strict that many of the post-9/11 candidates could not pass the course.  By early 2002, a revolver qualification course that had been used by air marshals in the mid-1970s had permanently replaced the previous standard. The increase in manpower also brought more government oversight. The FAA, with its decades of experience in civil aviation security, began to be replaced by a new organization handling security functions for all modes of transportation. The signing of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act by President George W. Bush on November 19,2001, established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In January 2002, the FAA began the long process of handing over all aviation security duties to the TSA. Over time, air marshals eventually came to fall into the grasp of the TSA as well, with the transfer concluding on October 16th 2005. Meanwhile, thousands of air marshals were being trained. It was a new beginning for these men and women, and they were mostly unaware of the rich history of the air marshals that had come before them. The culture of the Federal Air Marshal had sustained many hits over the decades, however it was the massive increase in manpower after the attacks on 9/11  that delivered the final and fatal blow to that culture.

The second major change to occur for Federal Air Marshal Service since 9/11 was the new focus of air marshal missions. Prior to 9/11, air marshal missions were primarily focused on international routes. Airline plots like Bojinka, and hijackings such as TWA Flight 847 and Kuwait Airways Flight 422, had steered the security program towards an international, “long arm” approach. Although terrorists had used their own trained pilots in the past and had even shown a desire to steer aircraft into symbols of power, the violence that played out on 9/11 had not been planned for. After 9/11, this primarily international focus shifted to one that covered far more domestic routes as well. By covering flights both types of routes more equally, terrorists and criminals targeting U.S. aircraft now have a higher probability of being confronted by armed law enforcement personnel. The reach and resolve of terrorists to perpetrate their acts has forced aviation security professionals to adapt to these problems. The continued use of air marshals on a significantly higher percentage of U.S. flights has helped to tilt the balance of security back towards the safety of the public.

The third change that occurred after 9/11 was the loss of many hard-earned connections with U.S. intelligence agencies. Air marshals were very closely associated with the intelligence community throughout the 1990s. The excellent training air marshals received before 9/11, given their small numbers, enabled them to establish themselves as experts in their fields. These air marshals, as FAA Inspectors, had an intimate knowledge of the aviation system. They were all issued a Top Secret clearance because of their positions and the Director of the FAA Federal Air Marshal Program also secured SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) classifications for them, in order for pre-9/11 air marshals to work with more sensitive intelligence information. These SCI classifications allowed air marshals to gather and assess information when evaluating airports overseas, which was a related duty for air marshals at the time. This sharing of information was important for an overall picture of potential threats, and for better evaluation of security loop holes at gateway airports to the United States. This close association with the intelligence community was lost after 9/11. The contacts and associations made in these important areas were killed in the realignment and takeover of the FAA program by the TSA. These precious links may never be re-established to assist air marshals in their duties.

The fourth major change for Federal Air Marshals after the attacks of 9/11, is that for the first time in history they are flying missions as their primary duty. Prior to 9/11, air marshals worked primarily as FAA Inspectors. Their work as Federal Air Marshals was a duty performed only for specific events or during periods of heightened threat towards the aviation system. As FAA Inspectors, air marshals gained invaluable expertise about the civil aviation system in general. Today, the less extensive training that air marshals receive leaves a gap in knowledge and experience that is crucial for successful and robust in-flight security.

FAMS LogoAviation continues to be a tempting target for terrorist attacks: Terrorist organizations have spent decades infiltrating and studying the aviation system. This fact should revitalize the air marshal commitment today; however, the fifth change that has taken place in the ranks of air marshals since 9/11 is a loss of purpose amongst many of the rank and file. The reasons for this are many, and are sensitive subjects for today’s air marshals. Issues between air marshals and management, and the time, distance, and separation from the attacks on 9/11, make for a dangerous brew for our aviation system. Air marshals had very distinctive threats before 9/11, and these were very prevalent from 1970 to September 11, 2001. Knowledge is power, and pre-9/11 air marshals had the tools at their disposal to identify the threat they faced: Air marshals today are not nearly as well informed. One of the most significant changes in air marshal training after 9/11 has pushed them towards more of a law enforcement role. Now, air marshals find themselves caught between counter-terrorist and law enforcement officer, which has left many air marshals questioning their positions. This resulting confusion has left air marshals in a position of vulnerability, and many air marshals fear that the Federal Air Marshal Service will not support them even if performing work within the scope of their duties.

The culmination of the many changes to the Federal Air Marshal Service after 9/11 has sent mixed signals as to what the threat towards civil aviation really is, and has helped feed the feeling amongst air marshals that they have lost their purpose. Air marshals today still face a considerable danger in the skies, and although it is not a realized and readily identifiable one, terrorists have studied our aviation system, and they continue wait for an opportunity to strike. The difference that air marshals make as a deterrent and physical presence on U.S. flagged air carriers is necessary. The Federal Air Marshal stands in the face of this threat as a necessary deterrent on US flagged air carriers. By understanding better their past and the threat they face, they can use their own culture and history as a force multiplier in the protection of this most vital national security resource.

Clay W. Biles has a long and varied career in U.S defense, beginning with his career in the Navy in 1994. Using this experience, Biles then moved into Explosives Demolition in Los Angeles, followed by his studies to become a doctor and two years spent as a medical researcher at Stanford University Medical Center. In 2001, after the attacks on 9/11, he returned to the military and served with SEAL Team Three until 2004. After years spent in the UAE, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mexico on overseas security contracts, Biles joined the Federal Air Marshal Service where he was assigned as his class’ training leader during the air marshal academy, and was given the Distinguished Honor Graduate Award upon graduation. He recently left the air marshal service and now enjoys spending time with his wife, Wendy, and kayaking. For more information, please visit www.famhistorybook.com.

About the Author

Clay Biles



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