The horrific attacks on 9/11 taught us several things, aviation is and continues to be the holy grail of targets for terrorist groups, the threat is constantly evolving, and we must constantly evolve in order to meet the threat. As it stands today, we have failed to properly evolve and it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out. We need to place the Federal Air Marshal Service within the lead law enforcement agency in DHS, Homeland Security Investigations and here’s why.
The Federal Air Marshal Service which falls under the TSA has struggled since the attacks on 9/11 to come up with an effective way to manage the workforce and deploy air marshals on the highest risk flights. This is made evident by looking at the two attempted terrorist attacks since then. In 2001 Richard Reid was flying from Paris to Miami on American Airlines flight 63 when he attempted to ignite his shoes that were packed with explosives. It’s no mystery there were no air marshals aboard that plane. We got lucky to say the least.
Similarly, in 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. He attempted to set his underwear on fire in an attempt to detonate explosives. Again, the agency failed to identify that flight as being high risk even though at the time Amsterdam had the most-lax security of any country American flagged carriers flew to. We again dodged a major bullet.
Then several years later came the audits by the watchdog agencies. In 2016 a scathing Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit concluded that the FAMS did not include risk into how they deployed its air marshals. Astonishingly enough the report quoted senior leaders in the agency as actually saying they did not use a risk assessment, “but rather selected these areas in consultation with 30 subject matter experts from various offices within TSA”.
That’s not a typo, they actually said they took the almost billion dollars the taxpayers give the agency every year and had “experts” within TSA, a regulatory agency not a law enforcement or intelligence agency, and used their “intuition” to deploy air marshals. That alone should have enraged Congress enough to get the FAMS out of TSA, but it wasn’t.
After that GAO report came the smoking gun. The Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General released a series of reports that said not only was the agency not properly deploying its resources, (on the ground or in the air), the IG actually recommended at least half the FAMS budget be slashed and “put to better use.”
The reality is the Air Marshal Service is languishing under the TSA. History has taught us that a law enforcement agency has no business being run by bureaucrats in a regulatory agency. The missions and cultures are completely different. Pre-9/11 while under the FAA (another regulatory agency), the FAMS were in the same desperate position. There were only 33 active full-time agents, which helped set the stage for the catastrophe that was soon to follow.
Just about every other country with an air marshal program has it set up as a specialty unit within a larger law enforcement agency. Our neighbors to the north, Canada for example have their FAM program as an elite unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The benefits to this are immeasurable. Under this model you have an immediate surge capacity, if a threat pops up that requires the force to significantly and quickly increase, you can simply pull from the highly trained law enforcement agents outside of the FAM unit. As soon as the threat subsides those agents can return to their normal duties.
When this has happened here in the past, TSA has had to pull federal agents from other federal law enforcement agencies to augment the FAMS. This created huge training and accountability gaps which resulted in many missed missions and arguably actually increased our vulnerability instead of enhancing our aviation security. This has also in the past, forced the agency to hire hundreds of new agents to mitigate a temporary threat. Unnecessarily increasing the size of the federal payroll.
This model also closes most if not all of the intelligence gaps. Placing the FAMS into the Homeland Security Investigations would immediately close any intelligence gaps due to the fact HSI, the lead law enforcement agency in the Department of Homeland Security, generates and receives all the latest intelligence. This would eliminate any concerns about releasing very sensitive information to a regulatory agency that is primarily responsible for screening passengers. Additionally, under TSA the FAMS have done away with most if not all the previously high standards the once elite cadre had. As a specialty unit within HSI the standards to get into the unit could be raised again to what they once were or even higher.
The stakes are too high to fail again. Placing the Federal Air Marshal Service as a specialty unit within HSI would immediately cure all that ails the agency. It would give agents opportunity to transfer in and out, and give them confidence in their mission once again. It will save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by shrinking the agency to a necessary level, and most importantly actually enhance our national security. The time is now to evolve the Air Marshal Service into an elite, efficient, intelligence based specialized unit within HSI.
It’s time for Congress to act before history yet again teaches us the perils of failing to evolve to meet the threat. After all it’s only a matter of time before our luck runs out.
Sonya LaBosco is the president of the Air Marshal National Council. She is a retired Supervisory Federal Air Marshal out of the Orlando field office. David Londo is the Vice President of the Air Marshal National Council.