by Larry C. Johnson (bio below)

Wednesday’s shooting of an American Airlines passenger by a Federal Air Marshal (FAM) has launched the usual flood of Monday morning quarterbacking.

Unfortunately, some key issues are being misrepresented and misreported. As one of the point men for the State Department in dealing with US airlines and the TSA’s predecessor, the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Security, in the 1990s I have some experience with aviation security issues.

Was the shooting justified? Based on eye witness accounts in the public record the answer is yes. I’ve heard some of the silliest, most ill informed commentary on both radio and televsion. Some commentators have asked, “why didn’t the FAM grab the bag”? This question shows a complete lack of understanding about explosives. If you are confronted with someone who claims to have a bomb you must assume the person has a bomb. Your first objective is to try to get the person to put the item in question on the ground and then evacuate the area until a bomb dog or robot can come on scene. If that is not possible you then try to isolate the individual and have all other folks evacuated from the area. In this case, the troubled man would not relinquish control of his bag. The FAM is not trained to grab the bag because such a move could actually trigger an explosive. When you are dealing with possible bombs you do not assume unless you want to earn the nickname, “Lefty” or “One-Eyed Pete”. Once the suspect reached into the bag the FAM had to assume he was reaching for the detonator.

Some, especially the company that makes Tazers, have complained, “Why didn’t they use a Tazer?”

Two words–Rodney King. Despite claims that a Tazer will always put someone on the ground, that is just marketing hype by the manufacturer of the device. In this situation the FAM must be certain the person is put down. Unfortunately, there are enough cases where a person hit by a Tazer has continued to fight and move. Two bullets in the center of the chest puts you on the ground.

Some folks who have watched too much Hollywood pablum have whined, “Why didn’t they shoot him in the arm or the leg?” A shooting is a very quick event and precise shooting, even at close range, can be difficult. Accordingly, FAMs and other law enforcement officers are taught to shoot at center of mass, i.e. the chest. You never point a firearm at someone in order to “wing” them. A gun is a lethal weapon. Even if you shoot someone in the arm or leg there is no guarantee they will be disabled. They could still move and possibly disarm the FAM. If you shoot, shoot to kill. Thems the rules.

Now for my pet peeve, TV and media reporters need to understand that the render safe performed on the bag does not mean the bag is “blown up” or “exploded”. What appears to be an explosion is usually a shotgun shooting a blast of water at the suspected detonator. This action separates the detonator, if there actually is one, from the explosive. Normally, this keeps the device, if there is one, from exploding. TV is supposed to educate, not mislead folks.

Finally, this event may produce a tough look at the FAM program. Do we still need them? For starters most flights do not have FAMs on board. There are over 30,000 flight segments a day. The average flight requires 3 FAMs. If the average FAM earns $50,000 a year you are talking about a minimum budget of $4.5 billion just to put men and women with guns on board everyone of our planes. We are not willing to pay that price.

Do we really need FAMs? Since the cockpit doors have been hardened and locked, the risk of a repeat 9-11 style hijacking has been virtually eliminated. Effective security screening can keep mass casualty weapons, such as firearms, off of planes. A person with a knife, even a big knife, cannot kill a lot of people. A man with a gun that has 12 bullets and an extra magazine can do significant damage. We probably can get by without them.

The real remaining gap in the aviation security system is being able to determine if someone is carrying an explosive in their carry on or on their person. The existing technologies currently deployed, mostly trace detectors (you know, the cotton patch rubbed over your briefcase) are not terribly reliable and are used on only a very small number of passengers. We still need a technology that can screen all passengers and bags in an efficient, reliable manner. This is a tough technological challenge. However, if we spent $3 billion a year on developing this technology rather than flying armed guards from one airport to another we would ultimately be better off. Just a thought.


Larry C. Johnson is CEO and co-founder of BERG Associates, LLC, an international business-consulting firm that helps corporations and governments manage threats posed by terrorism and money laundering. Mr. Johnson, who worked previously with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism (as a Deputy Director), is a recognized expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, crisis and risk management. Mr. Johnson has analyzed terrorist incidents for a variety of media including the Jim Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, ABC’s Nightline, NBC’s Today Show, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and the BBC. Mr. Johnson has authored several articles for publications, including Security Management Magazine, the New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. He has lectured on terrorism and aviation security around the world. Further bio details.

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