Why Do Air Marshals Think Flight 327 Was a Probe or Dry Run? Three Current or Former Air Marshals Speak Out
I recently discussed an article by Audrey Hudson of the Washington Times, which asserted that several current and former federal air marshals believe Flight 327 (Annie Jacobsen’s “Terror in the Skies” flight) was a dry run or probe for terrorist activity. Days later, I quoted one federal air marshal as specifically making that assertion.
But why do air marshals think Flight 327 was a probe or dry run? I asked three of them that question. Two are current air marshals, and the other is a former air marshal. All three offer their views on this question in this post.
Former Air Marshal Robert MacLean is a whistleblower and, in my view, a true national hero. In my recent post, P. Jeffrey Black, a currently employed air marshal, had this to say about Mr. MacLean:
Former air marshal Robert MacLean was terminated for exposing to the public a dangerous TSA/FAMS policy which removed air marshals from all cross country flights –– similar to those flights hijacked on 9/11 –– because the TSA wanted to save money by not having to pay for hotel rooms for the over-nighting of air marshals. Mr. MacLean was a former distinguished Border Patrol Agent who graduated from the very first air marshal academy class soon after the events of 9/11, and has flown more missions than most air marshals still flying today.
Mr. MacLean was quoted in Audrey Hudson’s article as saying Flight 327 was an “unmistakable dry run.” I asked him for more details. He was careful to say that he couldn’t say beyond the shadow of a doubt that Flight 327 was a dry run: “Without a signed confession or the ability to read their minds, we will never definitively know if this incident was a dry run or probe.” But, he said, “I strongly believe that this incident was at worst a dry run, and at best, a probe.”
I asked him why he thought so. He said:
In my 10 years of experience as a law enforcement officer — five of those as an air marshal — I trained for thousands of hours using many operational plans that were obtained from terror camps and anti-terrorism intelligence, read dozens of these terrorism intelligence reports, and I flew hundreds of mission. I also have an extensive, discipline-free history as an outspoken representative of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) and national security whistleblower who exposes the truth without fear of vindictive senior federal executives. The actions of the Syrians were like young children testing the limits of their parents’ patience. In this case, they went as far as they could to test the temperament of the flight attendants and air marshals without giving anyone enough probable cause to make an arrest. It was an easy task for them to expose the air marshals and the flight deck, only to then act polite and ignorantly dumbfounded when met by authorities at the gate. The fact that the band leader was involved in a prior aviation security incident and the majority of the rest of the band had positive hits during records checks should be enough for anyone to be convinced these individuals were not just having fun and games in a thin tube at 35,000 feet going 500 miles per hour.
Mr. MacLean pointed out flaws in air security that were exposed by what he believes was, at a minimum, a terrorist probe:
First of all, we know the air marshals were based in California, so they had to walk up exit lanes and get pre-boarded in front of the general public to make their flight in an airport outside of the state. It is now extremely likely that the Syrians, along with everyone else with half a brain, now knew that the flight had air marshals.
During the flight, the Syrians’ actions rattled the flight attendants enough to expose the air marshals. Now that the air marshals are completely exposed, they are vulnerable to an attack to take their weapons and use them against them and take control of the cabin.
Scariest of all, is the fact that the Syrians’ actions compelled the pilots to open the flight deck door to allow crew members in. The second that door unlocked, anyone could have forced themselves inside and created a disastrous United Airlines flight 93 scenario.
These individuals may not have been operating a hijack, but they certainly gathered a significant amount of valuable intelligence to pass on to terrorists training every day for the real thing.
The most disappointing events occurred when the supervisory TSA and FAMS officials met the flight at the gate and essentially let the Syrians continue on their merry way, to pass on their newfound intelligence to their friends training at the camps.
Due to the Federal Air Marshal Service’s unwritten policy directing air marshals to turn a blind eye to illegal aliens, it is obvious that the air marshals on board, who were at the time under the purview of Immigration & Customs Enforcement, were reluctant to further detain these individuals and conduct appropriate records checks. During my air marshal duties, I personally witnessed and investigated three different major illegal alien smuggling operations being carried out on airliners — only to be later stonewalled and retaliated against.
I bolded the first sentence of that last paragraph, because I think it’s critical to understanding the problem with Flight 327. Recall what it says on page 11 of the Inspector General’s report on Flight 327:
One of the air marshals aboard Flight 327 did notice the June 10, 2004, expiration while photocopying the visas. However, he said his
primary concern, at that time, was not whether the visas [had] expired, but to copy the visa pages so that CBP could later run a database check on these individuals. This air marshal said he could have asked CBP to run a database check on the visas for him that day, but he did not do so. FAMS headquarters officials said that the air marshal erroneously believed he was not legally entitled to the database information and CBP might have declined assistance.
Why would a federal law enforcement official think that he is not legally entitled to check the immigration status of a suspicious person in his custody — and would rather let that person go before even asking to run a database check? The answer lies in Mr. MacLean’s statement above: it was an unwritten policy at the Federal Air Marshal Service to turn a blind eye to illegal aliens — and this unwritten policy is pervasive. It goes beyond Flight 327. Let me return to Mr. MacLean’s statement:
Let’s give credit where credit is due: The outed air marshals aboard the flight did their job perfectly — everyone got back home without a scratch. This was a monumental accomplishment given the fact that the air marshals have no way to communicate with each other nor with the crew. After being outed during the situation by the flight attendants, they had to worry about 100-plus potential enemies who could slit their throats with TSA-approved 4-inch, pointed scissors and use their weapons to take over the aircraft.
Keep in mind this incident occurred under the reign of former FAMS Director Thomas D. Quinn, when he mandated that air marshals wear suits and ties, and maintain a military grooming standard. It was also during this time Director Quinn had the “Air Marshal Hotel Discount” policy that mandated air marshals to reveal their identity and display their badges to hotel clerks in order to check in.
I strongly believe that this incident was at worst a dry run, and at best, a probe. Probing, by itself, is not a prosecutable act. So the only reason for TSA to hide probable dry runs is to promote a false sense of security . . . and to create a falsehood in the name of promoting confidence is irresponsible — a fool’s errand indeed. The TSA ignores the truth and has honed the art of Kabuki Theater security to fool the airline passenger. The public deserves better than that.
Well said, and very damning.
Next we hear from a currently employed air marshal who wishes to remain anonymous, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone familiar with Mr. MacLean’s story. Commenters have criticized statements made by some current and former air marshals on the grounds that that they are either out the door, or are possibly about to be shown the door. In my view, this is an ignorant argument that ignores the tremendous sacrifice that these men have made to tell the public the truth about air security. But if you are stubbornly clinging to the notion that these current and former air marshals are saying bad things about the government only because their employment was terminated, or may be currently at risk, then let me introduce you to an anonymous air marshal who is both currently employed and doing quite well at his job. Here’s what he says about Flight 327 and why he thinks it was either a probe, or a deliberate and malicious attempt to scare passengers:
Most things in law enforcement involve looking at an event or situation using the totality of the circumstances. So while a portion of an event, observed alone or in a vacuum, might have an innocent explanation, when viewed as an unified whole it has an entirely different significance.
That is why I am convinced that NW 327 was something more than some guys with the runs.
If you break it down you can come up with a likely explanation for pretty much everything that happened on the flight (except the throat slitting gesture. That one is pretty universal in context). But when you combine all of the incidents and actions that occurred into a unified whole I believe you can only come to the conclusion that something significantly more sinister was intended.
I’m torn between one of two conclusions, but both had inciting fear as their motive. That much I’m sure of. The “why” is where I’m stuck, and I can never know that absent talking to the Syrians in question, which, of course, will never happen.
Explanation #1 is a probe. A dry run is a different animal than a probe. A dry run is what an operating crew does right before the actual operation. It’s like a dress rehearsal. They do not want attention focused on them as that would endanger the upcoming operation.
A probe, on the other hand, wants attention. Its whole purpose is to see how far they can push the envelope. They push it until they meet resistance and then scale back from there. That gives an operating crew a safe margin for error. “Don’t do X, Y and Z and you won’t have any problems and you can avoid security and scrutiny.” So, if you’re pushing and testing the limits, then you’re going to come to the attention of the powers that be. And if you’ve come to their attention, you’d be ruined for a future operation because now you’re in the system. You are a known commodity.
NW 327 could have easily been a probe. Almost all the actions in it were designed, upon observation, to elicit a fear response from the passengers, crew and air marshals. And when you get scared/nervous you either shut down and hope it goes away (like many did), or you do something. Sometimes “doing something” means sitting there and waiting for an opportunity. Sometimes doing something means doing something. That is the response they want to see. How far can I go without anyone doing something? When I do cause action, who does something (and what did they do), and who just shuts down and lets me get away with it? Do you not think this would be valuable information to have if you were a bad guy?
The second explanation I have is that these men were sympathizers of terror groups or anti-American/Western/Whatever and were deliberately making people scared in some kind of act of defiance or protest. You can then play it off as some kind of cultural insensitivity or blatant racism or anti-Muslimism. They would be supporters of such groups as al Qaeda but not directly affiliated and had no overarching goal other than causing panic on NW 327. That was their only goal, not the accumulation of data and intelligence. But, while possible, I find it less likely. How likely is it that you find several men willing and able to do this that just happened to be in the same band? I would think you’d need to look long and hard for candidates for such an op, especially one with no real payoff other than scaring some people on one single flight.
These are my opinions only and, while indicative of the feelings of many FAMs I know and have talked to, I am not speaking for anyone but myself.
And, in case anyone brings it up, I’m not a former air marshal nor one in trouble or on the way out. I’m a current FAM and one who has received several merit raises for performance, including one last year. My only goal here is to intelligently and rationally address security issues and give aviation security and the public the security it deserves. I have no political ax to grind. We have to face the facts. And then act on them. And the facts tell me this was very, very suspicious and designed to get people scared and then see how they would react.
I asked a third anonymous air marshal why we shouldn’t give primacy to the conclusions of the air marshals who were actually on board Flight 327. He said that the Inspector General’s report has already proven their credibility to be questionable. He noted that the facts that we already know do not correspond with what the Federal Air Marshals on Flight 327 stated after the flight. He further noted that their actions during the flight — like having the Captain call ahead for law enforcement officers to meet the plane — do not correspond with their comments after the flight. This anonymous air marshal — who is currently employed as an air marshal — speculated that the inconsistency is explainable if you conclude that the air marshals were briefed and told what to say after the flight. He pointed out that you can’t change what they did during the flight — and noted that having the Captain call ahead for law enforcement officers to meet the plane on the ground is a very serious action to take. His conclusion: up until the time the plane landed and they were briefed by FAMS supervisors, they clearly thought they had a serious problem on board.
This air marshal concluded by saying:
How do I know Flight 327 was a probe? Because I’m an experienced Federal Air Marshal who has flown thousands of missions. It’s my job to know. TSA management? They are not air marshals, they don’t fly on planes every day, and its not their job to know what a threat is. They have zero experience in aviation security.
I’d like to conclude this post by reiterating how difficult it is to get current air marshals to talk about these issues on the record while giving their names. They are understandably reluctant to jeopardize their jobs, and are torn between their natural desire for self-preservation (and the need to provide for their families) and the need to inform the public about the serious holes they see in airline security. And make no mistake: while I intend to protect my sources as strongly as any professional journalist — perhaps even more so — I recognize that there is an inherent risk in speaking out, even anonymously. Rather than be flippant about these issues, rational observers should be amazed by, and grateful for, the courage and forthrightness of folks like Robert MacLean, and the anonymous air marshals quoted in this post. They don’t have to take these risks, but they do — to protect you and me. We owe them our thanks.