Gun Nuts at 30,000 Feet?

After the pervasive failure of airport security on 9/11, the Air Line Pilots Association sought federal permission for pilots to carry handguns to defeat hijackers. Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the association’s flight-security committee, explained, “The only reason we want lethal force in the cockpit is to provide an opportunity to get the aircraft on the ground. We don’t have 911. We can’t pull over.”

The Bush administration rejected the request, preferring instead to rely on jet fighters to shoot down hijacked civilian planes. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta declared on March 4, 2002, “I don’t feel we should have lethal weapons in the cockpit” – as if airplanes themselves were not among the most deadly lethal weapons.

Congress eventually trumped the administration, passing a law in September 2002 to create a program to train pilots to use firearms to defend their planes. (The Transportation Security Administration – TSA – effectively buried the program with red tape, ensuring that only 48 pilots would be permitted to carry guns in early 2003.)

Former TSA chief John Magaw was the administration’s point person in the fight against permitting pilots to be armed. Magaw announced, “The use of firearms aboard a U.S. aircraft must be limited to those thoroughly trained members of law enforcement.” The federal air-marshal program was touted as a silver bullet against hijacking threats. A White House statement on aviation safety in the wake of 9/11 declared, “The requirements and qualifications of Federal Air Marshals are among the most stringent of any U.S. federal law enforcement agency.”

The TSA was determined to quickly expand the number of marshals from a few hundred to more than six thousand. However, most of the applicants failed the marksmanship test. The TSA solved that problem by dropping the marksmanship test for new applicants – even though the ability to shoot accurately in a plane cabin is widely considered a crucial part of a marshal’s job.

Some would-be marshals were hired even after they repeatedly shot flight attendants in mock hijack-response training exercises. One marshal groused that the training for new marshals was “like security-guard training for the mall.” USA Today’s Blake Morrison noted a report that “one marshal was suspended after he left his gun in a lavatory aboard a United Airlines flight from Washington to Las Vegas in December. A passenger discovered the weapon.” An air marshal left his pistol on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Indianapolis; a cleaning crew discovered the weapon. Morrison noted,

At least 250 federal air marshals have left the top-secret program, and documents obtained by USA Today suggest officials are struggling to handle what two managers call a flood of resignations.

TSA director James Loy (who was hired after Magaw was fired) insisted that the “traveling public should rest assured that the Federal Air Marshal Service is providing the largest, highest-caliber, best-trained and most professional protective force in American aviation history.” The Transportation Department responded to the USA Today expos by sending Secretary Mineta to an air marshal training facility, where he witnessed a training exercise in which marshals shot a would-be hijacker. Mineta commented,

I not only saw a remarkable demonstration of skill, professionalism and marksmanship, but a degree of professionalism we are instilling throughout our aviation security system.

The Rajcoomar episode

Eight days later, on August 31, 2002, Delta Flight 442 with 183 people on board was proceeding from Atlanta to Philadelphia on a Saturday afternoon when a passenger got up and began rummaging in the overhead bin. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the trouble began when a man described as “fortyish and disheveled made inappropriate comments to a female passenger a few rows behind him.” Two plainclothes air marshals jumped up and tackled the guy, shoving him first to the back of the plane and then dragging him to the first-class area.

Then the trip got interesting. One of the marshals returned to the front of the coach section, drew his Glock semiautomatic pistol, and started screaming and pointing his gun at passengers. Philadelphia judge James Lineberger, a passenger on the flight, commented,

I assumed at that moment that there was going to be some sort of gun battle…. There were individuals looking to see what they were pointing at and [the air marshals] were yelling, “Get down, get out – get your head out of the aisle.”

In a formal complaint to the TSA, Lineberger declared that

there was no apparent reason for holding all the passengers of the plane at gunpoint, and no explanation was given…. It appeared a gun battle was imminent, causing great distress.

Lineberger was sitting diagonally across from the initial target of the marshals; he did not notice any problem on the flight until the marshals went ballistic. Susan Johnson, a social worker from Mobile, Alabama, was also unaware of any disturbance until the air marshals seized the man. She said,

It never made sense. This guy was not any physical threat that we could see. Maybe he said some things to them that made them concerned. He just appeared to us unstable, emotionally.

Becky Johnson, a reporter who wrote a column about the episode for her Waynesville, North Carolina, newspaper, observed, “They never, ever said who they were, that they were air marshals or whoever.”

After the flight landed, the marshals nailed another terrorist suspect – Robert “Bob” Rajcoomar. He was handcuffed and taken into custody because, as TSA spokesman David Steigman later explained, Rajcoomar, “to the best of our knowledge, had been observing too closely.” Rajcoomar had been sitting in first class quietly reading and drinking a beer until the marshals dumped the allegedly unruly passenger from coach class into the adjacent seat. Rajcoomar recalled, “One [marshal] sat on the guy … he was groaning, and the more he groaned, the more they twisted the handcuffs.” Rajcoomar asked the stewardess for permission to move to another seat in first class; she told him to take one of the seats the marshals had vacated.

When the plane landed, Rajcoomar recalled, “One of these marshals came down to me and said, ‘Head down, hands over your head!’ They pushed my head down, told me to bend down.” Rajcoomar said one of the marshals told him, “We didn’t like the way you looked” and “We didn’t like the way you looked at us.” Some air marshals apparently think of themselves as minor-league deities whom no mortal should be permitted to directly observe. Rajcoomar was locked up in a filthy cell for three hours before being released without charges. His wife was left to roam the Philadelphia airport, not knowing what had happened to her husband.

Rajcoomar was born in India and became a U.S. citizen in 1985. He was a retired U.S. Army major and a practicing physician in Florida. He filed notice that he would sue the TSA for violating his civil rights through “blatant racial profiling.” Rajcoomar complained that the marshals “were behaving like terrorists themselves.” After the plane landed, the first person the marshals had handcuffed was questioned but a U.S. attorney decided not to file charges.

Defending the air marshals

TSA spokesman David Steigman told The Palm Beach Post, “If the air marshals say, ‘Sit down, keep eyes straight forward,’ well, don’t even think about moving around.” (The TSA has not yet formally proposed that Congress legislate a death penalty for getting out of one’s seat in violation of a TSA command.)

TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker justified the response to the Associated Press because marshals are trained to “do what they believe is the right thing to do to get control of the airplane.” Steigman told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “There was a passenger who was being obstreperous, who was subdued by sky marshals and has since been released.” “Obstreperous” could simply mean the guy made some noise. Does this mean that air marshals feel entitled to threaten people with imminent death any time someone raises his voice during a flight?

The air marshal who brandished his weapon had twice applied to be a cop in Philadelphia but failed the police department’s psychological tests; the marshal was also rejected in his attempt to get a job as a prison guard. The marshal had received only two weeks of training at the time he threatened scores of coach passengers. Steigman, responding to the Philadelphia Inquirer scoop about the air marshal’s psych test strikeouts, declared,

Federal air marshals are highly trained law enforcement professionals, each of whom can be called upon to make, at any moment, a split-second decision while traveling hundreds of miles per hour 30,000 feet above the ground with no backup.

This comment implied that the marshals were miraculously piloting the plane and maintaining altitude at the same time they waved their guns in the air.

What escalates this episode beyond a mere bizarre anecdote is the fact that the TSA hailed its marshals as models. Several days after the incident, Thomas Quinn, the national director of the air marshal program, asserted, “The federal air marshals did a very good job. They did exactly as they’re trained to do.” This makes stark that all the onus will be placed on airline passengers when TSA employees lose control of themselves and threaten to kill people. Problems are caused only by people who disobey the commands of federal agents.

Even though the air marshals are unreliable, the Bush administration has slowed down the congressionally mandated program to authorize pilots to carry guns. Though it went through the motions of setting up a program, it did so in a way to discourage pilots from participating. One pilot, Tracy Price, complained, “The TSA has very intentionally and successfully minimized the number of volunteers through thinly veiled threats and by making the program difficult and threatening to get into.”

Nine months after Congress passed the law, TSA had certified only 44 pilots to pack heat while flying. The Washington Post reported in October 2003 that

advocates for pilots who carry guns said the pilots are barred from criticizing the program to the media. The TSA has offered the news media opportunities to interview pilots who are supportive of the program.

Brian Darling of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations condemned the TSA’s slant: “They should not be trotting out federal flight-deck officers to say good things about the program while muzzling pilots who are critical of the program.” After grumbling about TSA’s policies on armed pilots spilled into the media, a TSA official sent an e-mail warning to all pilots authorized to carry guns prohibiting them even from communicating to their congressmen about their concerns about the program.

In 2002 Bush bragged that the law creating the TSA “greatly enhanced the protections for America’s passengers and goods.” Rather than making Americans safe from terrorists, the TSA has made them prey to federal agents. There is no reason to expect the agency to turn over a new leaf. And there is no reason to expect a small army of undercover federal agents flying on planes to make Americans safe.

March 9, 2005

James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of The Bush Betrayal and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.