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TSA’s air marshal program is a ridiculous waste of money

The lines for security in Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport were unusually long on Friday, May 11, 2018.
The lines for security in Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport were unusually long on Friday, May 11, 2018.

We recently learned that taxpayers are paying for teams of air marshals to conduct surveillance on individual passengers who aren’t even on a terrorist watch list.

If this “Quiet Skies” program is the most useful thing the marshal service is doing, perhaps it is time to put this agency out of business. The concept of the air marshal has been ridiculous from the beginning.

There are more than 40,000 flights landing in American airports per day. By some estimates, there are fewer than 2,000 air marshals assigned to flight duty, and far fewer available for service on any given day due to vacations, sick leave and time off. So marshals are probably present on less than 2 percent of all U.S. flights, a tiny deterrent to potential terrorists.

Even if a marshal is present on a flight, the likelihood that he or she could personally preempt a terrorist incident is infinitesimally small.

We don’t need marshals to stop terrorists from hijacking airplanes because, ever since 9/11, the cockpit doors have been hardened and the cockpits are sealed during flight. There have been zero cockpit breaches by terrorists on the 250 million domestic flights since 9/11.

An air marshal is also highly unlikely to be able to stop a terrorist who sneaks a bomb onto a plane from detonating it. To preempt such an attack, an air marshal would need to 1) determine that a detonation attempt is occurring, 2) identify the bomber’s location, 3) move from their seat to where the bomber is located, 4) discriminate between the terrorist and innocent passengers and 5) take action to kill or disarm the terrorist in the plane’s cramped confines. All this has to take place within seconds.

It is far more likely that alert passengers will take effective action against the terrorist before the marshal even knows what is happening.

More than a decade ago, experts identified air marshals as the least cost-effective component of the U.S. aviation system. Analysts Mark Stewart and John Mueller concluded the air marshal program “fails a cost-benefit analysis” and costs 18 times more per life saved than the standard regulatory safety goal.

And in 2017, the TSA admitted to the General Accounting Office that it “was very difficult to measure the effectiveness” of the marshal program and it had “no plans underway to collect this data.”

Congress finally caught on. Legislation unanimously passed the House requiring the marshal service to use a “risk-based” strategy to allocate resources, choose flights to cover and assign flight seats.

Which brings us to the recently disclosed “Quiet Skies” program. Under this initiative, the TSA identifies “suspicious” passengers based on their recent travel pattern and then assigns air marshals to chart passengers’ behavior during the flight, looking for factors like “rapid eye blinking,” “cold penetrating stare” and “changing appearance.”

The public outcry against government surveillance of individuals who have done nothing wrong has been severe, but misses the larger point. “Quiet Skies” is a giant waste of money.

Looking for terrorists by examining international travel patterns is no more than applying pixie-dust to the database of about 1 billion domestic and 4 billion global air passengers per year. The TSA’s algorithm for identifying suspicious travelers is classified and immune from independent scrutiny. Congress and the public ought to be deeply skeptical of it because, so far, none of the 5,000 U.S. citizens monitored under this program have “merited additional scrutiny.”

In addition, the checklist the marshals use to monitor these travelers is based on the discredited notion that would-be terrorists exhibit a set of uniform behaviors. Indeed, government auditors have determined, based on a meta-review of 400 studies, that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”

The ill-conceived “Quiet Skies” program is evidence that the marshal service is desperate to justify its existence. It certainly is not a serious counter-terrorism program. Congress should put this agency out of its misery and use its $800 million budget for a more productive purpose.

David Schanzer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.