[The author has a new book that more fully develops these themes: The United States Federal Air Marshal Service: A Historical Perspective, 1962 – 2012]
Federal Air Marshals have been protecting U.S. flagged aircrafts more than 50 years. Their position is intricately woven into the fabric of history which was born almost a century ago, when the first aircraft was hijacked in Peru. Since that initial spark, a fire has raged in civil aviation security, to tame the many criminal and terrorist threats that have threatened the entire aviation system.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy realized that the threat against aviation was a major problem, and called for the use of armed guards on select flights. The first group of air marshals was staffed by the Federal Aviation Administration a short time later, in March 1962.
Since their initial inception, Federal Air Marshals have gone through a number of changes that have ebbed and flowed with the tide of terrorism and criminal acts targeting aviation. Throughout the long and proud history of air marshals, however, the most rapid changes to their ranks came after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The first change to occur immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks was the need to standup 600 air marshals in one month, and thousands more after that. The U.S. had 33 air marshals working in a full time capacity, and the Bush Administration was pushing to expand the program fast. The training of so many air marshals was not an easy task. The standard for their firearms qualification was so stringent that many of the post-9/11 candidates could not pass the course.
This standard had made the air marshals the top 1 percent of shooters in the world, however, was considered too difficult by many post-9/11 managers. By early 2002, a revolver qualification course that had been used by air marshals in the mid-1970s, had permanently replaced the qualification standard.
The increase in manpower for air marshals also brought more government oversight, and the FAA, with its decades of experience in civil aviation security, started slowly being replaced by a new organization: The signing of the Transportation Security Act by President George W. Bush, established the Transportation Security Administration in November 2001.
In January 2002, the FAA had begun to hand over all aviation security duties to the TSA, and over time, air marshals eventually came to fall into their grasp as well.
By September 2002, 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 air marshals that came before them.
Any trace of culture that remained in the ashes of 9/11, was forever erased with the rapid standup of personnel. The culture of the Federal Air Marshal had sustained many hits over the decades. However, the increase in manpower after the attacks on 9/11, had delivered the final and fatal blow to that culture by late 2002.
The second major change to occur for Federal Air Marshals since 9/11 was the new focus of air marshal missions. After 9/11, the focus shifted from an international one, to a more broad-spectrum approach. Prior to 9/11, air marshal missions were focused on international routes.
Airline plots like Bojinka, and hijackings such as TWA 847 and Kuwait Air 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 during the Sept. 11 attacks had not been planned for.
By covering flights on domestic and international routes, terrorists and criminals targeting U.S. aircraft have a higher probability of being confronted with armed law enforcement personnel. The reach and resolve of terrorists have forced aviation security professionals to adapt to these problems. The continued use of air marshals on a higher percentage of U.S. flights tilts the balance of security back towards the safety of the public.
The third change that occurred after the Sept. 11 attacks 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 collateral 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. This precious link may never be re-established by air marshals, and the niche that was groomed for nearly a decade, throughout the 1990s, will likely never reach that level of cooperation or expertise.
Air marshals were used for flying missions as collateral duty prior to 9/11, and this is the fourth major change for Federal Air Marshals after the attacks: This is the first time in history that they have flown missions in a full-time capacity.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, air marshals worked primarily as FAA Inspectors, and the position of Federal Air Marshal was a duty performed only for specific events or heightened threats against the aviation system. As FAA Inspectors, air marshals learned invaluable experience about civil aviation.
Today, air marshals less extensive training leaves a gap in knowledge and experience that is crucial for successful and robust in-flight security.
Aviation continues to be tempting for terrorist attack: 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 against aviation 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 as informed. After 9/11, the confusion between training for a counter-terrorist engagement and performing law enforcement duties left many air marshals questioning their positions.
One of the significant changes in air marshal training after 9/11 pushed them towards more of a law enforcement role.
Air marshals today continue to find themselves caught between counter-terrorist and law enforcement officer. This confusion leaves 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 after 9/11 have helped feed this loss of purpose and send mixed signals as to what the threat towards civil aviation really is.
Prior to 9/11 air marshals faced a very distinctive threat. Many air marshals woke up every morning with the fear of this threat, and many resigned because they were not prepared to face that threat. Air marshals today still face a considerable danger in the skies.
Although, it is not a realized and readily identifiable one, terrorists have studied our aviation system, and they, like air marshals, wait for an opportunity.
The difference air marshals make as a deterrent and physical presence on U.S. flagged air carriers is necessary. The United States cannot afford another 9/11. The Federal Air Marshal stands in the face of this threat, and 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.