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Columns : The Federal Voice

Forgetting the Lessons of 9/11

Cutting back on Air Marshal assets could leave us open to another wave of aerial terror.

May 15, 2014  |  by Jon Adler

Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have made it clear that aviation security remains a top priority. So why has the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) decided to close down six Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) field offices?

Why didn't the congressional appropriators allocate enough funds to prevent the field office closures? Maybe TSA leadership failed to communicate the critical need to sustain the proper level of funding for all FAMS field offices. Did TSA leadership falter and allow Congress to trip into the common complacency trap of concluding these offices are disposable? Did those same administrators give Congress the impression that because we haven't lost control of a plane since 9/11 there's less risk?

It seems TSA leadership remained silent as Congress drew the faulty conclusion that armed pilots and reinforced cockpits negate the need for Air Marshals. Armed pilots are essential to securing the interior of the cockpit, but not the tax-paying Americans sitting in the cabin. And it's important to note that not all pilots are armed; they also have limited mobility in the cockpit chairs, and they are still vulnerable to a well‐coordinated attack.

Nonetheless, the FAMS proposed budget for 2015 has been reduced by $19.5 million. What does that say about our commitment to air travel safety, and why with the passage of time are we discarding the critical recommendations of the 9/11 Commission? While failing to embrace these questions, FAMS has indicated it will be closing six of its 26 field offices: San Diego, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. That's not exactly a list of podunk towns that terrorists couldn't find on a map. So what's the reason for forcing honorable Air Marshals to disrupt their lives, sell their homes likely at a loss, and wait for orders to move their families to an unknown location?

TSA/FAMS has attempted to justify these proposed office closures by claiming a "risk‐based approach" compels them to realign assets. If in fact they had credible intel that warranted shifting Air Marshals to other field offices, why not detail them rather than shutting down an entire office and forcing them to move? Have they considered cost-saving alternatives such as moving the Pittsburgh field office onto a nearby military facility at little or no cost? Also, why has the safety of Americans living in those six cities suddenly become less of an appropriations priority?

Unenlightened critics of FAMS have asserted Air Marshals have minimal value since they hardly make any arrests. This is the type of fatal ignorance that gets people killed. Terrorists are rational opportunists and are constantly looking to exploit security vulnerabilities. Air Marshals are highly trained in close-quarters tactics and are the antidote to air travel vulnerabilities.

There is a video that was made in support of the Saracini Aviation Safety Act titled "Two Seconds to Breach." It depicts how easily terrorists can overwhelm a flight crew and seize control of an aircraft. Rather than make the minimal investment to install secondary barriers, the airlines prefer to place their unarmed flight attendants in harm's way. So if a terrorist group decides to buy all the first class seats on a cross-country flight, who's going to repel them when the pilot leaves the cockpit to use the lavatory? Do the airlines and TSA expect passengers to use their seat cushions as boomerangs in defense of a coordinated terrorist attack?

Simply hoping for the best doesn't deliver the best, and tax paying Americans deserve the full support of their Congress and their government. The lessons of 9/11 should not be discarded or forgotten. The proverbial buck starts with Congress, but it ultimately stops with Air Marshals on planes.

It's amazing that as aviation security concerns increase because of the missing Malaysian airliner, so does general apathy. TSA's leaders are obviously not banging the drum in opposition to the field office closures, and that speaks volumes regarding their lack of concern for the safety of Americans residing in the six cities mentioned. Perhaps FAMS needs to be pulled out from TSA and put under a parent agency that understands the critical importance of a trained law enforcement presence on commercial flights.

When terrorists try to breach the flight deck, a rabbit's foot won't stop them, but Air Marshals will. By shutting down FAMS field offices, TSA will be leaving Americans to police by prayer alone at 30,000 feet. That is an inappropriate response to a safety priority.

Tags: 9/11, FLEOA, Federal Air Marshals Service


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