Umm...war on terror?....ummmm....
July 30, 2003 12:06 AM   Subscribe

Amidst new warnings of Al Qaeda hijacking plots, Bush Administration pulls air marshals from duty The argument for this? - hotel rooms for the marshals are too expensive. OK, then.
posted by troutfishing (35 comments total)
I suggest complimenting with a ban on selling bug spray in areas affected by West Nile.

On a semi-serious note, this smells rotten of the kind of election move from the sons of the cronies that brought you Watergate. Even appearing to manufacture crisis is a sign of a weak and possibly corrupt administration. It may not be the case, but appearances don't look good.
posted by will at 12:34 AM on July 30, 2003

The image accompanying the story is kind of shocking at first, until you notice the phony red plastic knife.
posted by mathowie at 12:39 AM on July 30, 2003

I suppose it does look bad, but I don't really buy the dhs memo stating that: Al-Qaida planners have primarily considered suicide hijackings and bombings as the most promising method to destroy aircraft in flight as well as to strike ground targets,” but this could be a word issue (primary terrorist goal destroying aircraft in flight Vs actual acts of, um, terrorism).

But it would seem much more logical, as the interviewed air marshals note, to stop covering more of the low-risk flights rather that pulling air marshals from plains that are obviously more valuable from a terrorist perspective.

Frankly I'm not convinced that hijacking planes is now de facto standard terrorist policy.
posted by cohappy at 12:49 AM on July 30, 2003

Dude, the guy in the red shirt can't be real.
posted by cohappy at 12:50 AM on July 30, 2003

Dude, the guy in the red shirt can't be real.

Looks fake to me too!
But what is real during these days?
If you don't ask yourself this question during these days are you in fact yourself real? Timewarp ok now just go there((9999))))))))))))))))))!$$$$^&&&*($#$#%#$%#$%$#%@$%@#%#$%$#%#$%@%$#$T^&#%&^%*&^()&*)(*(^%&^#$******

posted by thedailygrowl at 1:04 AM on July 30, 2003

Dude, the guy in the red shirt can't be real.

The guy in the red shirt always dies first.
posted by Tenuki at 1:40 AM on July 30, 2003

The guy in the red shirt is real... his brother is my boss...
posted by twine42 at 3:10 AM on July 30, 2003

Well, duh! Less marshals = higher risk. I certainly see the connection.
posted by magullo at 6:40 AM on July 30, 2003

{twilight zone music}

do-do-do-do do-do-do-do

You've now entered bizarro world, where if it makes sense to do something, the administration will do the opposite.

{/twilight zone music}
posted by evening at 6:46 AM on July 30, 2003

Okay, while this sounds like Yet Another Shrub Screwup, this time, it really isn't. Air marshals are a classic case of fighting the last war.

Before 9/11, the rule with hijackers was simple. "Do what they tell you do to, and you will almost certainly live. Don't, and you'll probably die." The reason for this rule was historical -- those who fought, died, those who didn't lived.

Al-Queda figures this out, and exploits it. Crash, Crash, Crash. About 40 minutes have passed, and then the passengers, having heard what happened in NYC and DC, attack the hijackers in the fourth plane and it crashes. The attack plan -- use the rule of complicity in the face of hijacking -- was rendered useless 40 minutes after it was first used.

Note that those over PA were attacking from a point of disadvantage -- they had already complied and surrendered the plane, and were trying to take it back.

We've seen several cases where people have attempting hijackings, and gotten subdue by the crew and passengers. If you want to take a plane now, you have to do so with enough force to kill everyone on board.

Nobody will let you take a plane while they can resist. We all know what happens if we do -- we die. The rule, now, is simple. "If you resist, you may die. If you don't, you will die, and you may help the terrorists kill many, many more people."

So. Air marshals are figments of the last war. We don't need a couple of "highly trained" officers on board. (Spotting them is often trivial.) We have a whole cabin full of people who will fight attempted hijackers, and numbers more than make up for the training.

So, I'm glad this program is going away. It takes money from us, and takes money from the airline, in the form of the seat they have to give the Marshall (which always seems to be in First Class.)

If this bought us a large amount of extra protection, that might be worth it. It doesn't. All it buys you is a gun aboard the plane -- wether this gun will stop hijackers, or just put tiny holes in the plane, or in other passengers, is a question not yet resolved. Worse -- Hijackers jump up. Air Marshall jumps up. They jump the Marshall, win, and get the gun. Now, they have the gun, and if the other pax stayed still, since the Air Marshall was handling things, they're now at a real disadvantage.

Folks. Here's the deal. If someone tries to hijack a plane, attack them. If you've got a second, grab your seat-which-may-be-used-as-a-flotation-device, put your arm through the straps (shield) and go! If you can keep them out of the cockpit, you'll win. You may die. If the get they cockpit, you will die.

Air marshals add little to this, and potentially remove lots.

I'm far more worried about Al-Queda grabbing a cargo plane, to be honest.
posted by eriko at 6:47 AM on July 30, 2003

Good points, eriko, but they are being cut back because of cost concerns, not efficiency issues.
posted by magullo at 6:57 AM on July 30, 2003

While your argument has some validity to it eriko, the one point you miss is that terrorists are trained. Having a trained air marshall (gun or not) on board improves the odds. A reasonable bit of insurance to pay in my book.
posted by ElvisJesus at 7:00 AM on July 30, 2003

Eriko, your reasoning all makes some sense, but I think budgetary concerns are the administration's reasoning. Further, there are many crazy ideas that make sense in one way or another but that are still crazy.

Perhaps the administration is secretly keeping marshalls on the flights but wants the terrorists to think that they have a window of time in which to act in hopes of flushing them out. That makes just as much sense as the administration hoping that people will fend for themselves against terrorists on airplanes. With that kind of reasoning, the government would cut taxes on handguns so that everybody might buy them and then fight crime themselves. If you don't use your gun: you will die; if you use your gun: you may not die.
posted by crazy finger at 7:03 AM on July 30, 2003

Right on eriko. The next jihadi lunatic who tries to hijack a jet is going to be beaten to death with infidel duty free liquor.
posted by ednopantz at 7:03 AM on July 30, 2003

DOH! Crazy Finger gave away the plan!!
Dude!! You let the cat out of the bag.
posted by a3matrix at 7:08 AM on July 30, 2003

I think eriko is just ignoring the issue of budget contraints, and just saying overall, that the Air Marshall program is a bit outdated. I don't think anyone will dispute that $$ is the main focus of the article.
I will agree with eriko on the point (s)he makes about the rest of the passengers too. Nobody will let you take a plane while they can resist. We all know what happens if we do -- we die. The rule, now, is simple. "If you resist, you may die. If you don't, you will die

It is that simple I think. Envision yourself flying somewhere, and being put in a "terrorist" situation. Would you just sit back and wait for an Air Marshall to handle things? Or, are you out of your seat doing whatever it takes to get the plane to the ground safely?

Look at the shoe bomber. It wasn't an Air Marshall that took him down. It was cabin crew and passengers.
posted by a3matrix at 7:15 AM on July 30, 2003

my brother was an air marshall for about a year. They made him pay for his hotels up front, keep the receipt, and they would reimburse him. The reason he quit: after a year, he had not been reimbursed for a single hotel expense.

eriko, while I agree with most of what you say, there are two things that I disagree with: the form of the seat they have to give the Marshall (which always seems to be in First Class.) This is simply not true.

Hijackers jump up. Air Marshall jumps up. They jump the Marshall, win, and get the gun.
Air Marshalls never work alone, and never jump up together. They anticipated that scenario.
posted by maceo at 7:38 AM on July 30, 2003

From another version of the story (AP) this is my favorite quote:
"The hijackers may try to calm passengers and make them believe they were on a hostage, not suicide, mission," said the warning, which was distributed over the weekend to airlines and law enforcement agencies said. "The hijackers may attempt to use common items carried by travelers, such as cameras, modified as weapons."
So if I may briefly summarize, yesterday we get a vague threat with no rise in terror level, today we get a cut in air marshalls, noting that they are to be cut from the most credible targets (nobody has ever been in the habit of hijacking flights from Dallas to Colorado Springs), and oh by the way trust nobody and the camera of the guy next to you might be a highly dangerous *gasp* letter opener with a deadly blade.

It would be more efficient and effective to have Tom Ridge's recorded voice shout "Look Out!" in airport terminals.
posted by ilsa at 7:44 AM on July 30, 2003

I think placing plastic-dummy-red-shirt-man on every flight is the only logical answer. Also, anything can be used as a weapon. Just ask Pat Benatar.
posted by sharksandwich at 8:38 AM on July 30, 2003

Dude, the guy in the red shirt can't be real

Sure he's real. He's Bush's straw man.
posted by Bag Man at 8:58 AM on July 30, 2003

As long as Kenneth Lay gets to keep a minimum of four mansions (plus the ski home in Aspen), it's ok with me.

The deficit is worth it. Big time.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:58 AM on July 30, 2003

Look on the bright side - another big attack would help that sagging approval rating. Ok, that's probably going too far, but I'm saying it anyway because part of me wouldn't put it past the Bush admin.
posted by holycola at 9:04 AM on July 30, 2003

TSA funding issues aren't limited to air marshals--remember when the senator from Washington had to duke it out with TSA and the White House in order to get TSA to release money earmarked for port security instead of keeping it for air security? In other DHS funding news, the FEMA budget (i.e. disaster response & mitigation) just got cut a couple hundred million dollars. That's unusual for FEMA.

What's the deal? Are we being prepped for a tax increase? Surely not. Are we being prepped for a service cut, so that the Republicans can transfer ed/health/welfare money to homeland security? What's going on?

Maybe we just need a deficit theme song to hum every time another funding story hits the news. (Like today's reports on Wolfowitz's refusal to forecast some Iraq costs.)
posted by win_k at 9:29 AM on July 30, 2003

The story has changed:

"In an apparent reversal of policy, the Transportation Security Administration will immediately begin scheduling air marshals back on cross-country and international flights, has learned. The move comes less than 24 hours after reported that air marshals were being pulled from those flights because of budget problems associated with the costs of overnight lodging for the marshals."

This would be funny if it weren't so lame.
posted by homunculus at 10:20 AM on July 30, 2003

A few counter comments.

Some note that I support this on strategic issues, and yet the cuts are made on budget issues. That's two sides of the same coin. Given that we don't have an unlimited resources to spend on anti-terrorism, every decision needs to be weighed with budgets in mind. If a given defense will stop 10% of the attacks, but costs 90% of the amount of money you have to spend, then it is a bad call. If it stops 90% of the attacks for 10% of the cost, then it is a great call. You cannot ignore cost when doing this. There are limits to what we can spend.

Allocating resources is critical to the task, which is why I'm against air marshals now. They made more sense when compliance, not defiance, was the operative strategy, and they're ideal against the lone hijacker. But given that the current crop of hijackers are not interested in surviving, air marshals only add a little more deterrence (more on this in the next 'graf) for lots of cost. You have to pay the guy, and when he's not at home, you need to put him up for the night. Meanwhile, the airline loses the revenue in for the seat, unless the government is paying the going rate for that seat, in which case, we're all paying for that.

The question is, do they add a significant amount of defense for their cost? Take your average 757 (the smaller of the two types used in 9/11) It seats around 170 people. Is the extra defense of 100 pax + 2 marshals over merely 100 pax worth it? Even in light loads -- where you've got maybe 35 pax, plus crew. Do two more air marshals add enough deterrence that the cost is worth it? This is the critical question.

I feel, strongly, that they do not.

As to Air Marshal seating. Don Carty (former CEO of AA, until he acquired a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease) testified before Congress that some 98% of the seats he was required to give up for air marshals were first class, and the majority of the remainder was flights that didn't have F seating. As to them not working alone, there are flights that have exactly one AM aboard (same testimony) therefore, they have to, right?

If you could afford to put a team of five on every flight, you'd make hijacking almost impossible. Presuming they are as well trained as they say, it would make hijacking passenger aircraft almost impossible. It would also cost more than we can pay, or put airlines out of business, or possible both -- and it would leave wide open other attack venues. Cargo aircraft. Barge traffic. Truck bombs. Or the old fashioned "Drive to busy place with grenades and automatic rifles and attack." A FedEx DC-10 hitting the WTC would have done the same or more damage than an AA 767. Oklahoma City shows how effective truck bombs can be. And so forth.

We do need a few trained air marshals. Say you have unconfirmed evidence of an attempt to hijack/damage an airliner in flight. Having a team of marshals to put on board that flight would be a good thing, and having a few teams in case there's some uncertainty is probably a very good idea. But the idea of a large pool of marshals to be spread about the entire US passenger air transport system buys us very little in additional security, and costs us a lot of money. That money can be spent on other things that are either more effective, or cost less and are just as effective.

That's called "budgeting", and it is very, very important.

Most of what I said about air marshals applies to the TSA as a whole, but most especially their biggest task -- preventing even the most minor potential weapon from getting aboard the aircraft. We're spending *tons* of money on this. Is it working? Are we really more secure, or are we, by plugging this one particular hole (passengers with weapons on board aircraft) spending money that could better be spent plugging more holes, ones that are either more dangerous, or would cost much less to plug. (Or both!) Is the security we gain worth the money we are spending?

And, of course, there's the idea that if it's hard to hijack a plane with 100 pax on it with nothing but their bare hands, it's even harder if they have pocket knives, letter openers, and golf clubs. (I'm against ranged weapons, simply because I don't trust Joe User to shoot straight on the ground, much less on a bouncing aircraft.)

I've rambled. Short version: Budgeting is important. Armies do this all the time. Is taking Objective Foo worth the cost in men, money, time and materials? Or will it just distract us from taking Objective Bar, which is far more useful?
posted by eriko at 10:26 AM on July 30, 2003

You can always trust the impartial advice of the friendly regulars down at the Objective Bar.
posted by nicwolff at 10:36 AM on July 30, 2003

eriko - Just a thought, but perhaps air marshalls are given first-class seating because those are the seats closest to the cockpit? I mean, putting an armed marshall at the back of the plane may make him less conspicuous, but it also gives whatever potential terrorists a bigger headstart towards the cabin. Just a thought.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:55 AM on July 30, 2003

"Is the extra defense of 100 pax + 2 marshals over merely 100 pax worth it?" - Eriko, we hope we'll never know, right?

One basic problem here is the problem of defense vs. offense. Defense is hard, very expensive, and often useless. Think of the pre-WW2 Maginot Line in France. In terms of the scale of various federal programs, I don't think the air marshal program costs very much in the overall scheme of US federal spending. But we will never be able to spend enough to stop suicide attacks. Ask the Israelis about it. The only way to prevent a determined foe from carrying out suicide attacks is political accommodation or negotiation, the way of addressing the grievances of the attackers: perhaps not directly, but with the ultimate goal in this case of reducing the rage much of the Muslim world now directs at the US. The Bush administration has been mostly denying that the US has played any role whatsoever in attracting terrorist anger. But the standard "All empires are hated" retort is seeming rather hollow now given the precipitous decline in the esteem with which much of the world - Muslim and not - holds the US and it's international policies. There was a rough consensus in the US intelligence community and among authorities on terrorism worldwide that a US invasion of Iraq would only fan the flames of rage fueling terrorist attacks. That estimation seems more and more accurate as the festering guerrilla war in Iraq drags on and on and hinders the US reconstruction efforts there - which in turn fuels Iraqi and Muslim grievances.

So, in light of the many billions already spent in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (which many think is likely to increase terrorist attacks against the US and it's interests and allies) , critiques the cost of the US air marshal program seem to me to be a bit misplaced.

Now all, or most, of your points may be valid. But one can analyze this story on an utterly different level -

What struck me (and the reason I posted this) was the bizarre juxtaposition of the blaring "Netscape News" headlines (which show up as the home page on the browser of the computer I'm using while on vacation) - for several days in a row they have been screaming of an impending Al Qaeda suicide hijacking. Today the headline was (billed as "Top Story") Feds: Suicide Hijackings May Come Next Month". The juxtaposition of this "story" (real? trumped up? who knows, really) with the proposed cut in air marshal service makes me wonder, because it seems to be so jarringly absurd (warnings of suicide hijackings, cuts in the air marshal program ?!) on the face of it.

Could the Bush Adm. be so stupid? Granted, I do think they have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot; but I wonder if it's possible, in this case, that alienated elements of the DC power structure have chosen to attack the Bush Adm. or, to put it bluntly: could this latest embarrassment have been actually manufactured by factions in the US intelligence community who wish to cause political damage to Bush and the Neocons?
posted by troutfishing at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2003

ultimate goal in this case of reducing the rage much of the Muslim world now directs at the US.

Of course this is precisely what the Admin is trying to do, believing that at base this is caused by incompetent leadership, asinine nationalist grandstanding, and dismal economic prospets, all of which could be solved by the introduction of responsible, representative government.

Instead of asking Arab governments to to democratize, (yeah right!) it has chosen two regimes, Iraq and the PA, who provide it with nothing, and have used the barrel of a gun to replace one and the power of the almighty buck to reform the other. The hope is that these two will start a chain reaction, much as the fall of Marcos is credited with starting SE Asia towards substantial democratization.

Rather than focus on the short term, it has taken a much more long term perspective on the problems of the region and has chosen to accept temporary instability to avoid long term stagnation.
posted by ednopantz at 12:52 PM on July 30, 2003

ednopantz - agreed, yes. But between the idea and it's implementation lies the shadow. The behavior of the Bush administration - it's arrogant dismissal of world opinion, the UN and the international rule of law, it's refusal to construct a truly inclusive coalition to deal with Iraq - in general it's unilateralist tendencies - all undercut this long term approach to the extent that I suspect that it will prove disastrous in the long run.

Further, the apparent belief of the Bush Neocons that Iraq would simply fall into line as a compliant, pro western democracy is of a piece with the tendency of policy approaches driven by ideology and abstractions: they tend towards failure and are inherently blind to local contingencies. Not to mention the inherent paradox in the idea of imposing democracy through the barrel of a gun, and the arrogance implicit in the idea of "improving" a country or it's political culture. Regardless of the real pathology of Baathism in Iraq, who - anywhere - reacts favourably to being forcibly "improved"?
posted by troutfishing at 1:45 PM on July 30, 2003

Well, the heads of most politicial orginizations in Iraq, both exile and not, seem to be pretty keen on playing along. Look at the Governing Council. The only organization not represented is Sadr's and he is little more than a child.

The reason there is such wide participation is that these guys aren't stupid. They understand that they have a choice between becoming another Germany or becoming another Pakistan. They are leaning toward some kind of democratic, weak federal model because all of the alternatives are vastly worse.

So instead of saying how people must feel, watch what they do.
posted by ednopantz at 5:35 PM on July 30, 2003

ummm... to repeat what homunculus wrote. The story has now changed. The wardens are now on the job, again. Looks more like a snafu then a policy change to me, but maybe I'm just an apologist. Please update your Bush-is-an-idiot posting accordingly.

From the new headline of the linked msnbc page:
"In an apparent reversal of policy, the Transportation Security Administration will immediately begin scheduling air marshals back on cross-country and international flights, has learned. The move comes less than 24 hours after reported that air marshals were being pulled from those flights because of budget problems associated with the costs of overnight lodging for the marshals."
posted by superchris at 8:28 PM on July 30, 2003

ednopantz - I hope you are right and that it does work out, despite my distaste for the the Bush Adm., because the alternatives ( to a successfull implementation of democracy in Iraq ) are truly awfull.

superchris - One hell of a snafu! There are other issues at play here - see my two comments above.
posted by troutfishing at 11:53 PM on July 30, 2003

Above: boorish onanist, vengefully excessive. ( see: here )
posted by troutfishing at 5:19 PM on July 31, 2003

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