Fear of Flying

On December 7, Rigoberto Alpizar, a 44-year-old man with a history of mental disorder, was killed, in a hail of bullets, by two air marshals at Miami International Airport. After the shooting, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said that Alpizar had run forward in the cabin while the plane was on the runway, yelling “I have a bomb in my bag!” When the marshals confronted Alpizar, the spokesman said, Alpizar ran out of the plane and on to the jetway; when he appeared to reach into his bag, the marshals shot him dead.

It turned out, of course, that Alpizar had no bomb, but government officials from both parties still heaped praise on the marshals' actions. Republican Representative John Mica, head of the House Aviation Subcommittee, and the representative of Alpizar's district, told reporters, “This shows that the program has worked beyond our expectations.” “The security system worked, and this should reassure air passengers,” echoed Representative John Linder, head of one of the major homeland security subcommittees.

Or maybe not. In the days after the shooting, the Orlando Sentinel reported, based on conversations with other passengers, that Alpizar yelled nothing as he ran in the aisle. Stranger still, says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron, “If the air marshals were properly trained, and could recognize threats, and the threat was so great, why didn't they shoot him on the plane” rather than letting Alpizar run through the aisle and on to the jetway, supposedly with a bomb in his bag. “The jury is still out there in terms of what happened on that plane,” Thomas says.

The air marshals have promised an inquiry into the Miami incident. But any inquiry is unlikely to dig too deep. Digging deeper, investigators might find that the air marshal program, supposedly vital to combating terrorism, has been flawed almost from its creation in ways that could trigger more dangerous situations in the future.

The Federal Air Marshals Service was created in the late 1960s as an elite unit of undercover armed men and women who would fly on the small number of routes considered most vulnerable to hijacking. But it was not until September 11, 2001, that the program as we know it today was really born. Before 9-11, there were roughly 50 marshals on active duty, and the service had a budget of only $4.4 million. After 9-11, the Transportation Security Administration, which would later be incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, ramped up the program at a breakneck pace, aiming for 2,000 marshals aboard flights, and growing its annual budget to more than $500 million. (The exact number of marshals in the air is classified.)

In this sped-up process, which drew many applicants because of the job's relatively good pay, people familiar with the program say, the air marshals had to lower hiring standards. And that translated into marshals who were poorly suited for the job. An internal report released in fall 2003 discovered some 600 reports of misconduct by marshals between October 2001 and July 2003, including losing “government property” (i.e., their weapons), sleeping on duty, and “abuse of government credit cards.” Internal investigators in a later report also examined 161 files of marshal applicants who'd been given top-secret security clearance. Roughly one-sixth had violated previous employer policies, while more than one-third had been arrested or faced “allegations of misconduct,” including allegations of domestic violence or assault, in the past. This disturbing record led investigators to say that “adjudication standards for air marshals are too lenient” and to recommend better guidelines for hiring marshals.

In the rush to stock planes with marshals, training also may have suffered. After the Miami incident, a spokesman argued that marshals already go through a course called “Managing Abnormal Behavior” about mental illness and other issues that might cause passengers to seem dangerous. But this coursework may not have been comprehensive enough. “Before 9-11, air marshals had a lot of leeway in taking additional and applicable training, like negotiator training,” says Leroy Thompson, who has led trainings attended by air marshals. “Pressure and ramping up the program gives them less time to do outside training.”

Indeed, the Government Accountability Office reported that the marshals had “revised and abbreviated [their] training curriculum.” “Of the 2,000 air marshals we have training today, most have almost no training with disruptive passengers, and aren't prepared to measure the risk” or determine whether someone is disruptive or truly dangerous, agrees Thomas. “The training has broken down.”

Lack of sufficient training wasn't the only problem. The air marshal program itself has been moved from agency to agency inside the Department of Homeland Security, making it harder to establish training guidelines, create a database of onboard incidents that marshals could learn from, or spend money wisely. (Last October, congressional appropriators cut monies to another DHS program after the program couldn't even explain how it would spend its funding.) And despite the rapid hiring, the marshals were overworked because they were being put on so many more flights than before 9-11. Marshals complained to internal investigators of working five consecutive 10-hour mission days, and they were sometimes working solo on flights. This is dangerous: According to the Center for Defense Information, a think tank that monitors defense and security programs, the marshals are supposed to fly in pairs because traveling alone makes it more likely they could be overpowered by an assailant on a plane.

Meanwhile, flight attendants didn't get enough support either. “Neither flight attendants nor pilots have received what aviation self-defense experts would consider appropriate and effective self-defense training at even a basic level,” said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, at a Senate hearing in December. The marshals still “cover only a very small percentage of domestic flights and an even smaller number of international flights,” said Friend. “We know this and we must assume the terrorists do too.” But in Congress, the airlines were “leading the drive against having the training,” one congressional staffer told the Prospect. The Republican majority listened to the companies: No statutes mandating flight attendant security training were passed. Some airlines voluntarily offered training, but this reportedly consisted of as little as a six-minute video on security issues. No problem: In a speech to the National Press Club, Assistant Secretary of DHS Kip Hawley blithely said that the post–9-11 public would step into dangerous situations on board. “Passengers will take action,” Hawley promised.

If one had looked closely, there were signs this could all lead to a disaster. According to reports in USA Today, tens of marshals reportedly left the service over the past three years, dispirited with internal problems. In 2004, the DHS's inspector general warned that the air marshals still had “deficiencies in the program,” harsh language for an internal report. The marshals apparently made little progress. Just before the Miami incident, the Government Accountability Office discovered that the air marshal service “lacks adequate management controls” and had not “developed an overall strategy.”

But the marshals' leadership didn't seem to care. To Congress, top DHS official Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson argued, “The federal air marshals is a strong program.” In fact, proposed cutting money from the marshals for fiscal year 2005, even though internal memos by some air marshal staffers warned of “significant to severe” impacts on operations if cuts went through. (“The impact on aviation security as a result of the reduction in federal air marshals service funding cannot be assessed,” one internal report ominously warned.) According to Admiral James Loy, former DHS deputy secretary and now a counselor at the Cohen Group, DHS -- unlike most cabinet agencies -- also had not created an internal bureau to think about policy, making it difficult to respond to criticism.

While all of this was going on, leadership apparently was worried about other issues -- like what the marshals should wear. Under marshal Chief Thomas Quinn, the agency allegedly created a dress code that forced marshals to wear business attire and adopt army-style grooming, including minute restrictions like “mustaches will not extend past the vermilion of the lip.” It didn't provide much cover: Some passengers are said to have even given the supposedly undercover marshals the “thumbs-up” sign when they noticed them in the cabin. (In January, Quinn announced plans to retire this month.)

Worried about the program, some marshals did try to sound a warning, but they were silenced. The Prospect obtained a complaint filed in a recent lawsuit against Quinn and DHS head Michael Chertoff in Washington, D.C., District Court. In the complaint, air marshal Terry Babb, president of the Federal Air Marshals Association, the marshals' trade group, claims Chertoff and Quinn have tried to stop marshals from revealing any information about the program's security holes, even investigating the association, a private group. “Under threat of disciplinary and/or criminal action,” the DHS coerced Babb into revealing information about the associations' members, its fund raising, its meetings, and its statements, the suit charges. “The ultimate goal,” Babb claims in the complaint, “was to chill the protected speech and associational rights of [the Air Marshals Association] and its members.”

Babb's story is hardly unique. “Some [marshals] felt pressure not to say what they want” to Congress or the public, one congressional staffer told the Prospect. Indeed, in 2004 the DHS conducted an internal investigation into whether officials had retaliated against air marshals who complained about the program. In the internal report, about 20 percent of the marshals believed they'd been threatened with retaliation. Two even said they'd been threatened with arrest and prosecution. Meanwhile, according to a letter to Congress written by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, another trade group, Quinn called dissenters “a bunch of pea brains” in a speech to air marshals in training. “I'm in charge of this Agency, and they won't dictate how I run things,” Quinn allegedly continued. “All the letters they write to [the] Senate and Congress won't do any good; this is my agency, and if you don't like it, leave.”

The Miami incident shocked the nation. But unfortunately, the number of potential incidents like the Alpizar case, with passengers who are angry or crazed but not terrorists, is likely to grow. If flight attendants feel unprepared to handle unruly passengers, air marshals may become more involved. And with airlines reducing staff -- airlines employed 5.5 percent fewer workers in October 2005 than in October 2004 -- there will be fewer attendants to keep people on board happy, and more angry passengers. The Department of Transportation reports that the number of complaints about airlines rose nearly 20 percent in the first nine months of 2005, over the first nine months of 2004. In other cost-cutting measures, airlines have been using smaller jets and slashing routes, increasing the “load factor” on each flight -- the number of people sardined into a plane. All this will only increase the number of onboard incidents and make it more difficult for the marshals to judge when they should step in.

“It's like rats -- when you pack people on planes, they get testy,” says Richard Gritta, an aviation security specialist at the University of Portland in Oregon. Hopefully, when passengers do get testy, there will be someone on board trained to tell whether that's all they are. But don't count on it.

Joshua Kurlantzick is special correspondent for The New Republic.