Tuesday, September 27, 2005

It’s All for Show

Terror in the SkiesDoes the accumulation of four years without further terrorist attacks make you feel safer when you fly? It shouldn’t. The Bureaucratic Bunglers are out in full force and with them in charge you don’t have a prayer. Or rather, all you do have is prayer.

According to Annie Jacobsen, we’d better do our homework on this one because there is no one watching out for us. Back in April,Gates of Vienna posted on Ms. Jacobsen’s tenacity and her willingness to follow this story wherever it led. That post, "Silence of the Sheep," proved that the author is a sheepdog indeed. Her interviews with other passengers, with government agencies, with the House Judiciary Committee, with airline personnel, and with individual people who bear the day-to-day hazard of working in this field, have made her case. The tale of her experiences is documented well in Terror in the Skies.

This is a top-down problem. The guys in harm’s way — the pilots and flight attendants — know the problems but they have no more power to address them than you do. Less than two percent of pilots are armed. Want to know why? Because in order to actually carry a firearm on board, the firearms training must be done on the pilot’s own time and it has to be done in a place far from home, squeezed into his holiday time or vacation.

And flight attendants? Again, they have to arrange self-defense training on their own time, at their own expense and without the cooperation of the airlines themselves. Think of it this way: what if Brink’s hired drivers and gave them no training in handling attempted robberies? What if they expected their employees to get training — if any — on their own time and their own dime? How long do you think Brink’s would be in business?

That’s the situation we have in the friendly skies of America. When you add to that the cruel joke of the Federal Air Marshals, the lackadaisical behavior of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the farce we all know as the Department of Homeland Insecurity, it’s enough to make you want to stay home and do your business by long-distance and email.

Let’s take just one: FAMS. This is bureaucratese for the Federal Air Marshal program. You know the old joke that goes “you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny”? Well, for this program, the first part may or may not be the case, but for the second premise — being dressed funny — you can count on FAMS. Due to the boneheaded policies of those in charge, Federal Air Marshals are required to wear sport coats and collared shirts. Yes, that’s right: they must look like Federal Air Marshals at all times because they are a reflection of FAMS and dressing in a slovenly disguise would somehow bring disgrace to the organization. Comments about being a lovely corpse would be appropriate here.

Then there’s what they do after they’re up and dressed. Remember, they’re carrying guns, right? So obviously they can’t go through security. However, there’s a second obvious thing they can do — they can fight the current and walk through the exit lanes for deplaning passengers. How’s that for subterfuge?

Let’s see, what other behaviors might they carry out to make themselves more obvious? Pre-boarding is one trick they have down well. So is always riding in first class.

And there you have the FAMS spotter information: check out the guys in first class in the sports coats who got on the plane before you. But don’t worry. Any terrorists on board sussed to their tricks a long time ago. They know exactly who they have to take out first, provided that any “taking out” is even necessary. If you’re going to detonate in the restroom, what do you care where the Federal Marshals are? They’re coming with you anyway.

Annie Jacobsen makes a good case for the fact that her flight, 327 on Northwest Airlines, was a “probe,” a dry run practice. And she backs up her contention with:

  • eyewitnesses who were on the plane with her,
  • a four hour FBI interrogation in which they admitted her intuition was correct,
  • contact from other passengers on other planes who decry the lack of security and the lack of follow-up in their cases, and
  • communications from frustrated and fearful pilots, flight attendants, and others in the business who know the skies are anything but safe, that they are being probed all the time, and that it is only a matter of time before planes fall from the sky.
Near the end of the book Ms. Jacobsen recounts a conversation with an air marshal. She asked him to explain what he meant when he said “it was all for show.” Here’ what he told her:
    You know how youd go to the airport, before 9/11, and an agent there, somebody who worked for the airlines would say to you, “Did you pack your own bags?” Well, it was all for show. Those agents weren’t trained in detecting whether or not someone was lying. The procedure was there to make the flying public feel good. That’s what happened with 327. They all came running like in the movies, but it was all for show. Who interviewed the men? FAMS. We’re not trained in interviewing terror suspects. We don’t know what to look for. And the FBI at the airport? I won’t go there. Who really should have been there? ICE. Period. ICE. But they weren’t. Why? Because management says probes aren’t happening on airplanes. The guys were there to make the passengers feet good, nothing more, nothing less.
Two years ago, I had a probing incident. It may have been one of the first. After it happened, no one knew what to do, there was no protocol. The guys involved in the incident sailed off into the crowd. What was I going to do? Run up, tap the guy on the shoulder and say, “I almost shot you, now I’d like to interview you?”
Instead, I filed a report about my probing incident. Basically I was told “it didn’t happen “ Well, it did happen. Probes have been happening ever since. I doubt anybody ever even remotely considered you’d attract the kind of press you did. But you did. That’s a good thing.’
Now you know. Annie Jacobsen’s intuitions about Flight 327 were correct. But you know even more: the official response to 9/11 is all for show — boondoggle and brouhaha and folderol and CYA.

Perhaps we should fly the friendly skies of El Al. They know security; they take it in with their mothers’ milk.

DISCLOSURE: Spence Publishing sent me this book for review purposes. This post, which I will also place in Amazon (see link above), serves as my part of the original agreement made with them that were I sent a copy, I would review Ms. Jacobsen's book. I recommend it highly. There is an excellent bibliography, a glossary of federal acronyms, and extensive notes and back-up for her assertions. The only flaw is the lack of an index. This can be annoying if you're looking for specifics -- e.g., her description of El Al's rigorous security for all its flights.

By the way Kevin Jacobsen, her husband, was initially so put off by the behavior of the fifteen Arab "musicians" on board the flight that he seriously contemplated faking a heart attack in order to get out of the plane before takeoff. Lacking the audacity to carry that out (a courage he no doubt has acquired by now)Mr. Jacobsen sat frozen through the flight, pen in hand, ready to fend off the terrorists. It may seem a futile gesture here on the ground, but it is speaks to the level of his fear for himself and his family.

Me, I'm going to do that old Red Foxx imitation. You know, the one where he clutches his chest and looks heavenward and says piteously "I'm comin' Lisabeth, I'm comin'..." Even now I am practicing the necessary histrionics in case I'm ever stupid enough to get on a plane other than El Al.


airforcewife said...

The government hamstrings themselves with their inability to admit what the problem is, and who may be causing it.

Immigration can only scrutinize those entering from Israel because anything else is "racial profiling."

Politicians are too unwilling to lose their jobs in order to instate what is necessary. They'd rather some people died.

Or maybe I'm just too cynical.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent post. On Sept. 8. 2001, I was flying from Tucson to Minneapolis with a layover in Denver. I had injured my foot and had to sit in an aisle seat to be comfortable. The plane was full--I was in the 3rd row in coach and noticed the first rows (of coach) seats had only two people in them. I was hoping someone would be invited to move into the empty seats, but this never happened. Meanwhile, I couldn't help noticing a passenger in first class, pacing back and forth. He was Middle-eastern and seemed extremely agitated. The curtains were partly closed so I wasn't able to see who the other occupants were. I didn't think much of it at the time--other than a slight feeling of uneasiness. I was in pain and just wanted to get to my Minneapolis connection on time. After 9/11, I wondered if I should contact the FBI, but decided against it since I assumed they would be overwhelmed with possible leads to what had occurred. I now wonder if this was indeed a part of a "dry run" or probe. I guess I'll never know, since I don't believe the government would make this infomation available to the public.

The recent headlines from Memphis do not give me any assurance that the agenda has changed for those who want to harm us:

Student Arrested After Pilot Uniform Found

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- A university student from Egypt was ordered held without bond after prosecutors said they found a pilot's uniform, chart of Memphis International Airport and a DVD titled ''How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act'' in his apartment.

The FBI is investigating whether Mahmoud Maawad, 29, had any connection to terrorists. He is awaiting trial on charges of wire fraud and fraudulent use of a Social Security number.

Maawad, who is in the United States illegally, told the judge during a hearing Thursday that he is studying science and economics at the University of Memphis.

''My school is everything. I stay in this country for seven years; I stay for the school,'' he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Parker said Thursday that the airport-related items were found during a Sept. 9 search.

''The specific facts and circumstances are scary,'' Parker said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge S. Thomas Anderson ruled that Maawad be held without bond.

''It is hard for the court to understand why he has a large concentration of those (aviation) items, and nothing else to indicate Mr. Maawad plans to stay in the community,'' Anderson said.

Maawad had ordered $3,000 in aviation materials, including DVDs titled ''Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings,'' ''Airplane Talk,'' ''Mental Math for Pilots'' and ''Mastering GPS Flying,'' FBI agent Thad Gulczynski testified.

The company reported Maawad to authorities when he didn't pay for $2,500 of merchandise it had delivered, Gulczynski said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

Dymphna said...

Airforcewife --

You're not cynical. However, NO politician would do the inner moral calculation necessary to realize what their jobs may cost other people.

They're like the Saudi women in their gilded cages.

While both groups are to be pitied, they certainly aren't above censure. Keep on firing away.

Just don't fly anywhere.

Dymphna said...

nordic smile--

Creepy anecdote there. You've must've been glad to kiss the ground (in one story of Annie Jacobsen's a flight crew literally kisses the ground after they deplane -- they were sure they were going down).

Your news story is wonderfully ironic. I'd read that, too. Somehow it fits that he'd be arrogant enough to think he didn't have to pay for those materials. Part of the fascist supremacist character, no?

I wonder why so many probes and dry runs and here's what I *think* may be going on:

First, it gives their terror cells lots and lots of practice. For the price of airline tickets they can become quite adept at spotting the weak points. And the practice keeps everyone from getting restless and bored.

Second, as these stories leak out into the public square -- to be either ridiculed, ignored, or accepted -- they become part of our regular dialogue, kind of like the weather. It creates a sense of "what can you do" fatalism so that when the next ones come, they will be all the more powerful for their destructive psychological effect.

Clever, isn't it?