Friday, September 20, 2002

Air Marshal Protection?

Now that more than two weeks have elapsed, I thought that the time had come for the incident on flight 442 of 9-1-02 to be reexamined. This is the episode where a passenger was behaving erratically, therefore he had been taken into custody by the two Air Marshals who happened to be on the plane. The incident is a little old for bloggage but I thought, with a fresh eyewitness report coming out today, the story was ripe enough for a recapitulation.

The first thing I noticed about this incident as I searched for something new in the eyewitness accounts and the "expert" opinion was that there has been no new official news that I can find; this seems to be the old stonewall, as has become usual for the feds. Still, we have several eyewitness accounts, so we can reconstruct a timeline of events.

A passenger, whose name is still a mystery, was noticed by some passengers either looking into some other passenger's carry on bags, or otherwise drawing attention to himself. According CNN:
James Lineberger, a passenger and Philadelphia judge, spoke Monday to CNN's Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: Where were you sitting in relation to the man who was considered unruly?

LINEBERGER: I was in seat 31, and he was across the aisle in seat 30.

HEMMER: So he was just a few feet away from you. And then what happened? Apparently he got out of his seat and went toward the front of the plane. That is my understanding.

LINEBERGER: That's correct. He got out of the seat, went ... in the direction of the front of the plane and then turned around and came back down the aisle beyond me ... toward the back of the plane.

Something happened that triggered the air marshal[sic] to respond to his activity. So they rushed back and apprehended him, carried him back to the first-class section, where they restrained him. And a few minutes later, they then drew their weapons, semiautomatic weapons, and leveled them on those of us who were passengers in the vehicle and held us that way for about 25 or 30 minutes.
FOX News had this:
David and Susan Johnson of Mobile, Ala., said they hadn't been aware of any disturbance when the sky marshals took the man first to the back of the plane and then to the first-class section.

"It never made sense," said Susan Johnson, 51, a social worker. "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."
the Philadelphia Inquirer had this:
Those on the plane said the incident began about a half-hour from Philadelphia International Airport when the man - who was not identified by officials but described by others on the plane as fortyish and disheveled - made inappropriate comments to a female passenger a few rows behind him.

The woman became upset and soon two air marshals, who were dressed casually, were rushing toward the back of the plane, their badges flashing, said passenger Jim Allen, of Mobile, Ala.

The man was removed from his seat and walked up the aisle to first class, his arms behind his back, passengers said. There, some travelers were asked to move to other first-class seats to accommodate the marshals. The curtain was drawn.

Five minutes later, though, one of the marshals reappeared, standing at the front of coach class in a defensive posture, his gun out and pointed toward passengers at the back of the plane. He remained in that position for the rest of the flight.

Passengers ducked their heads and prepared for the worst.

"I assumed there was going to be a gun battle, that some terrorist was ready to fire from the back of the plane," said Lineberger, who added that no one else was taken into custody.

"They were yelling at passengers to keep their heads and hands out of the aisle," Lineberger said. "I couldn't believe they would do such a thing."
All of these statements were taken on the day of the flight. Today had a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer (dated 9-19-02) built around the statement given them by a second passenger who was arrested on the flight, apparently for the crime of curiosity, coupled with the crime of Flying While Hindu. They introduce him thus:
The event, however, didn't end there. Unknown to most passengers on the Atlanta-to-Philadelphia flight, the marshals upon landing also seized an Indian passenger from first class and silently whisked him away in handcuffs.

Far from being a terror suspect, the second detainee turned out to be a former U.S. Army major and military doctor from Lake Worth, Fla., where he has had a family practice for two decades. Both detainees later were released without charge, and the physician's angry account of his ordeal offers a glimpse at the dark side of America's war on terrorism.

Yesterday, suggesting that the line between security and civil-rights violations is blurring, the physician, Bob Rajcoomar, filed notice in U.S. District Court that he may sue the U.S. government for illegal detention and emotional distress. His wife had been left to wander the Philadelphia airport for three hours during his detention, never told of his whereabouts.

So what has been the explanation from the new, improved, USTSA in their own defense? Eighteen days later, the Inquirer has unearthed the following statement from them:
David Steigman, a spokesmen for the newly created U.S. Transportation Safety Administration, which oversees the air marshals, gave few details about the detentions or the marshals' actions and declined to discuss the potential lawsuit. Atlanta-based Delta did not comment on the legal action.

Rajcoomar, "to the best of our knowledge, had been observing too closely. When the aircraft landed, the airline declined to press charges" against either man, Steigman said.
They go on:
"Air marshals issued a series of warnings to passengers to stay in their seats. The unruly gentleman didn't stay in his seat, so they took action to restrain him," Steigman said.

Rajcoomar, sitting in window seat 1-D, reading a book and sipping a beer, said he knew nothing until the marshals showed up and began pushing the unruly man into seat 1-C, adjacent to his.

Alarmed, Rajcoomar said he stood up and asked to be moved. A flight attendant told him to take one of the first-class seats vacated by the marshals.

"One [marshal] sat on the guy in the first seat; he was groaning, and the more he groaned, the more they twisted the handcuffs," Rajcoomar said.

Then, in coach class, a woman rose to switch seats with her child, who was sitting in an aisle seat, according to Rajcoomar's wife, Dorothy, who was sitting in coach class because the couple could not get seats together.

"That's when they started hollering," Dorothy Rajcoomar said of the marshals. One of them rushed to the divider between the first-class and coach sections and leveled his pistol at the coach-class passengers.

"He took control as if he was a terrorist himself," said Bob Rajcoomar, who was then sitting in a first-class aisle seat directly in front of the marshal. "He says, 'Nobody move, nobody look down the aisle, nobody take pictures or you will go to jail, nobody do anything.' He basically hijacked everybody."

One passenger, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge James Lineberger, said marshals "were yelling at passengers to keep their heads and hands out of the aisle... . I couldn't believe they would do such a thing."
and this:
About 30 minutes later, the plane landed and Philadelphia police officers came aboard to help take away the unruly man. Thinking the incident was over, passengers began standing up, Rajcoomar said.

"Then out of nowhere, hell broke loose," Rajcoomar said. "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... . I just couldn't believe it. I was speechless, in shock."
and finally this:
During detention, Rajcoomar said, he was never asked anything except his name, address and Social Security number. He asked why he was being held.

"One of the marshals said something like, 'We didn't like the way you looked,' " Rajcoomar recalled. "They also said something like, 'We didn't like the way you looked at us.' "

Finally, after about three hours, Rajcoomar was released without explanation.

What are we to make of these reports? First, the two air marshals were sitting in first class. very nice and comfy for them but does it make sense for them to be in the front of the plane? It is possible that one of the two could be positioned at the (new, improved, terrorist resistant and bulletproof) door to the cockpit, but the rear of the plane is clearly the place for a lawman to be, if he wants freedom of action and an advantage over any possible hijackers. The events after that show panic or, at least, overreaction by the marshals. Pointing a gun at unarmed passengers, in a situation where the marshals were the only armed persons on the flight, is inappropriate at best, and dangerous to boot. According to ABCNews:
The air marshal program was turned over from the Federal Aviation Administration to the newly created Transportation Security Administration in February.

Before the shift, there were fewer marshals and they were trained to avoid showing weapons and stay out of passenger disputes, said Joseph Gutheinz, a former FAA investigator.

Gutheinz, now a University of Phoenix criminal justice professor researching airline security, said he doesn't see the reason for the apparent change in policy.

"Under the old system, you just didn't pull out a weapon," he said.

There are too many dangers involved in bringing out weapons, including the danger that bullets could hit the plane or that the guns could be turned on the marshals by hijackers, Gutheinz said.
So there it is, clear as day. Is it only me, or is this story really about arrogance? Two armed lawmen take first class seats, panic, point guns at terrified passengers, and add nothing to the safety of the flight (made clear by the fact that there were no arrests), all adds up to an all too typical story of how, while we are spending much more money, any safety benefits this money should be buying us, and the claims by the government that things are getting better, are illusory. If we have so few marshals, why fly two at a time? Why were they in the front of the plane, instead of the tactically superior rear section? And, most important, why is there no explanation from the authorities, let alone any public debate. All we have is the statement by FAA spokesman Jim Peters, who said the agency no longer has control over the marshals and declined to discuss the actions of what he called a "gun-happy air marshal." Why is there no statement from the federal agency that is responsible?

Until I saw this story, I had actually believed that we were safer since 9/11, simply because airline passengers had been freed by the story of flight 93 to take care of their own safety ("let's roll"), and that this change had made us all more secure. Now I fear that air marshals would hinder, rather than help, any passengers who would take action to stop a terror attack. Read these stories, and tell me that I am wrong about this. Please.