Commentary: A culture lost — Five ways federal air marshals changed after 9/11


Commentary: A culture lost — Five ways federal air marshals changed after 9/11
By Clay Biles

Federal air marshals have been protecting US-flagged aircrafts for more than 50 years. Their position is intricately woven into the fabric of history, dating back to almost a century ago when the first aircraft was hijacked in Peru. Since that initial spark, a fire has raged in civil aviation security — a desire to tame the many criminal and terrorist threats threatening the entire aviation system.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy realized that the threat against aviation was a major problem, and he called for the use of armed guards on select flights. In March 1962, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) staffed the first group of air marshals. Since their initial inception, federal air marshals have gone through a number of changes that have ebbed and flowed with the tide of terrorism and criminal acts targeting aviation. Throughout the long and proud history of air marshals, however, the most rapid changes to their ranks came after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The first change to occur immediately after 9/11 was the need to stand up 600 air marshals in one month, and thousands more after that. The United States had 33 air marshals working in a full-time capacity on 9/11, and the Bush administration was pushing to expand the program fast. The training of so many air marshals was not an easy task. The standard for their firearms qualification was so stringent that many of the post-9/11 candidates could not pass the course. This standard, which made the air marshals the top 1 percent of shooters in the world, was considered too difficult by many post-9/11 managers. By early 2002, a revolver qualification course that had been used by air marshals in the mid-1970s permanently replaced the overall qualification standard. The increase in manpower for air marshals also brought more government oversight, and the FAA, with its decades of experience in civil aviation security, started slowly being replaced by a new organization.

The signing of the Transportation Security Act by President George W. Bush, established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in November 2001. In January 2002, the FAA had begun to hand over all aviation security duties to the TSA, and over time air marshals came to fall into their grasp as well. By September 2002, thousands of air marshals were being trained. It was a new beginning for these men and women, and they were mostly unaware of the rich history of air marshals that came before them.

Any trace of culture that remained in the ashes of 9/11 was forever erased with the rapid standup of personnel. The culture of the federal air marshal had sustained many hits over the decades. But the increase in manpower after the attacks on 9/11 delivered the final and fatal blow to that culture by late 2002.

The second major change to occur for federal air marshals since 9/11 was the new focus of air marshal missions. After 9/11, the focus shifted from an international one to a broad-spectrum approach. Prior to 9/11, air marshal missions were focused on international routes. Airline plots like Bojinka, and hijackings such as TWA 847 and Kuwait Air Flight 422, steered the security program toward an international approach.

Although terrorists had used their own trained pilots in the past, and they even demonstrated a desire to steer aircraft into symbols of power, the violence that played out on 9/11 was not anticipated. By covering flights on domestic and international routes, terrorists and criminals targeting US aircraft have a higher probability of being confronted with armed law enforcement personnel. The reach and resolve of terrorists have forced aviation security professionals to adapt to these problems. The continued use of air marshals on a higher percentage of US flights tilts the balance of security back towards the safety of the public.

The third change that occurred after 9/11 was the loss of many hard-earned connections with US intelligence agencies. Air marshals were very closely associated with the intelligence community throughout the 1990s. The excellent training air marshals received before 9/11, given their small numbers, enabled them to establish themselves as experts in their fields. These air marshals, as FAA inspectors, possessed an intimate knowledge of the aviation system. They were issued top secret clearances because of their positions, and the director of the FAA Federal Air Marshal Program also secured sensitive compartmented information (SCI) classifications for them, allowing pre-9/11 air marshals to work with more sensitive intelligence information.

These SCI classifications allowed air marshals to gather and access information when evaluating airports overseas, which was a collateral duty for air marshals at the time. This sharing of information was important for an overall picture of potential threats and for better evaluation of security loopholes at gateway airports to the United States. This close association with the intelligence community was lost after 9/11. The contacts and associations made in these important areas were killed in the realignment and takeover of the FAA program by the TSA. This precious link may never be re-established by air marshals. A key relationship groomed throughout the 1990s will likely never return to that level of cooperation or expertise.

The fourth major change for federal air marshals after the attacks: They began to fly missions in a full-time capacity. Previously, the duties of an air marshal were a collateral part of a bigger job.

Before 9/11, air marshals worked primarily as FAA inspectors, and the position of federal air marshal was a duty performed only for specific events or heightened threats against the aviation system. As FAA inspectors, air marshals learned invaluable experience about civil aviation. Today, the less extensive training of air marshals leaves a gap in knowledge and experience that is crucial for successful and robust in-flight security.

Aviation system continues to be a prime target for terrorist attacks. Terrorist organizations have spent decades infiltrating and studying the aviation system. This fact should revitalize the air marshal commitment today; however, the fifth change that has taken place in the ranks of air marshals since 9/11 is a loss of purpose amongst many of the rank and file.

Issues between air marshals and management — and the time, distance and separation from the attacks on 9/11 — make for a dangerous brew for our aviation system. Air marshals identified very distinctive threats before 9/11, and these were very prevalent against aviation from 1970 to Sept. 11, 2001. Knowledge is power, and pre-9/11 air marshals had the tools at their disposal to identify the threat they faced. Air marshals today are not as informed. After 9/11, the confusion between training for a counter-terrorist engagement and performing law enforcement duties left many air marshals questioning their positions.

One of the significant changes in air marshal training after 9/11 pushed them towards more of a law enforcement role. Air marshals today continue to find themselves caught between dual roles of counter-terrorist specialist and law enforcement officer. This confusion leaves air marshals in a position of vulnerability, and many air marshals fear that the Federal Air Marshal Service will not support them even if performing work within the scope of their duties.

The culmination of these changes after 9/11 has helped to feed a loss of purpose among air marshals and to send mixed signals as to identifying the threats against civil aviation.

Prior to 9/11, air marshals faced a very distinctive threat. Many air marshals woke up every morning with the fear of this threat, and many resigned because they were not prepared to face that threat. Air marshals today still face a considerable danger in the skies. Terrorists have studied our aviation system, and they like air marshals wait for opportunities.

Air marshals do make a difference onboard US-flagged air carriers as a deterrent against terrorism through their physical presence. But federal air marshals could improve their understanding of their service’s past and use their own culture and history as a force multiplier in the protection of national security.

Clay W. Biles has a long and varied career in US defense, beginning with his career in the Navy in 1994. Biles moved into explosives demolition in Los Angeles, followed by his studies to become a doctor and two years spent as a medical researcher at Stanford University Medical Center. After the attacks on 9/11, he returned to the military and served with SEAL Team Three until 2004. After years spent in the UAE, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mexico on overseas security contracts, Biles joined the Federal Air Marshal Service, where he was assigned as his class’ training leader during the air marshal academy. He received the Distinguished Honor Graduate Award upon graduation. He recently left the air marshal service and now enjoys spending time with his wife, Wendy, and kayaking. For more information from Biles, please visit

One thought on “Commentary: A culture lost — Five ways federal air marshals changed after 9/11

  1. Pingback: Russian Observation Aircraft Takes to Canadian Skies Under International Treaty

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