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More Armed Pilots Needed, Aviation Experts Say -- 03/28/2007


More Armed Pilots Needed, Aviation Experts Say
By Kevin Mooney
CNSNews.com Staff Writer
March 28, 2007

(CNSNews.com) - Box cutters, ice picks, knives, meat cleavers, brass knuckles and explosive devices are among the lethal weapons undercover government agents manage to smuggle past airport security, according to aviation security experts. They say the serious security gaps underline the need to arm more airline pilots - and quickly.

Despite extensive security measures put in place since 9/11, the experts note, the agents succeed in getting the dangerous items past airport security staff nine times out of ten.

Determined individuals would even been able to sneak firearms onboard, taking them apart and putting them together again once on the plane, according to Larry Johnson, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent.

For this reason, he told Cybercast News Service, a multi-layered approach to security that includes arming pilots, offers the best defense against a repetition of 9/11-style attacks. Johnson now serves as the managing director of Berg Associates, an international business consulting firm with expertise in counter-terrorism.

His conviction is shared by a number of pilots who spoke with Cybercast News Service. They say armed crew members must be called upon as "first line of deterrence and a last line of defense."

According to Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA) President Dave Mackett, undercover operatives carrying out tests for the Federal Aviation Administration have exposed gaping holes in the airport screening process - at a time when al Qaeda terrorists are strongly suspected to be testing American aviation security systems.

He confirmed that more than 90 percent of the attempts by the undercover "weapons smugglers" to get onboard airlines with their lethal items are successful.

Mackett, who is himself a pilot, said there is no question in his mind that another 9/11-type attack - and perhaps multiple attacks involving hijacked airliners - will take place in the future, in the absence of multi-layered defense mechanisms that include armed pilots.

"The only question," he said, "is will it be tomorrow or will be 10 years from now?"

'Burdensome requirements'

The Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) program is administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Law Enforcement and is overseen by Dana Brown, director of the federal air marshal service.

The Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, directs the TSA to deputize pilots as federal law enforcement officers trained in the use of firearms and authorized to use lethal force to defend the cockpit.

But aviation industry officials and policy analysts argue that instead of encouraging pilots to volunteer their time, TSA officials have undermined the program since its inception, and only a small number of pilots have volunteered.

Standing in the way of greater participation are what critics describe as "cumbersome" and "burdensome" TSA requirements, such as the use of a lockbox for firearms.

Pilots are compelled to carry their weapon in a lockbox whenever they leave the cockpit, and while traveling to and from the airport.

Other problems include the fact that only one training facility exists in the entire country - in Artesia, New Mexico - and pilots must pay for their training out of pocket and use their own vacation days.

Another major sticking point, according to critics, is a psychological exam prospective armed pilots must undergo. APSA officials charge that the exam is completely dissimilar to what is used for federal air marshals and is ill-suited for vetting potential law enforcement personnel.

Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt in an email to Cybercast News Service argued against standard screening for pilots, saying it "defeats the counter-terrorism purpose." He also voiced concern that armed pilots could be revealed while being screened in public.

"Is there anything to be gained by showing terrorists who their opponents are?" he asked.

Pilots have also expressed concern over the "lack of due process" for those who have been excluded from the FFDO program.

Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, said that pilots who have been turned down for the program include a number of current and military officials who have top-secret clearance.

Many of the program's deficiencies are addressed in an amendment Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) sought to attach to the 9/11 Commission bill earlier this month, Darling said.

In addition to eliminating the lockbox requirement, providing for due process, and alternative venues for training armed pilots, the Bunning Amendment also called on the State Department to negotiate agreements with foreign nations that would allow for armed American pilots to fly into those countries.

Bunning's amendment has been tabled for the time being, but Darling is convinced there is substantial support on Capitol Hill for technical changes that would encourage greater FFDO participation. He points out only six U.S. senators voted against the original bill.

Former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), a primary sponsor of the original armed pilots legislation, recalled stiff opposition to the program. For instance, there were concerns raised about "stray bullets."

"If some terrorist gets into a cockpit, I'm willing to take the risk of a stray bullet, in order for the pilot to save the plane," Smith told Cybercast News Service. "This is about saving lives. After 9/11, it's a whole new ballgame. Those planes are WMDs."

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has been a staunch advocate for armed pilots right from the beginning. He also objects to the lockbox requirements and told Cybercast News Service that guns have actually been stolen from the baggage area while inside the lockbox.

Another point of concern for DeFazio is the need for the State Department to negotiate agreements with foreign governments so pilots can be armed on international flights.

The screening process for armed pilots should also be altered, the congressman said, so pilots can access a special entrance for law enforcement, just as federal air marshals now do.

"I wonder if pilots should be screened at all, DeFazio said. "We waste time and resources screening people who are not a threat."

APSA Vice President Robert Sproc believes a properly constructed program that observes standard law enforcement protocol would work as an effective deterrent against "acts of piracy" in the air.

Sproc - also a pilot - credits Brown, the FFDO program director, for attempting to put procedures in place "that should have been put in place a long time ago" but worries that "it may be too little too late" to attract more pilots.

Second Amendment in the air

The armed pilots program, if executed properly, would serve as a powerful demonstration of the principle of self-defense, Darling argues.

"This program highlights a central idea of the Second Amendment," he said. "People have the power to defend themselves, they don't have to rely on the government to defend them. This is about empowerment and self defense."

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) told Cybercast News Service some of the opposition to the armed pilots program constitutes a "knee jerk liberal reaction" from bureaucrats and others who are "anti-gun" and "anti-Second Amendment" and who do not understand the value of self-defense.

Wilson also recalled encountering many of the same flawed arguments when he worked to pass a concealed carry law as a state senator.

Support for the armed pilots program extends beyond Second Amendment backers, however. Smith credits Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the measure with Smith, for her persistence.

Fixing the FFDO program is critically important, because without enough armed pilots, the unsavory prospect of having to shoot down a hijacked passenger airliner as a last resort arises, said Mackett.

"A philosophical change is needed," he said in an interview. "We need to switch from a philosophy of prevention to a philosophy of defense. This means the ability to defend against an attack on every aircraft in the sky."

APSA estimates that less than one percent of commercial airlines have a team of armed pilots onboard, while fewer than 10 percent have even a single armed pilot. This situation does not stem from a lack of interest, Mackett said. APSA surveys show at least 50,000 pilots would sign up immediately if standard law enforcement measures were in place.

Armed pilots, air marshals, or both?

Mackett said expanding the FFDO program is the cheapest and most effective way of protecting airliners and that the entire commercial aviation fleet could be protected for about $30 million a year.

By contrast, an expansion of the air marshal program to meet that challenge would require a force the size of the U.S. Coast Guard. APSA figures show air marshals protect about five percent of commercial airlines - at a cost of $700 million a year.

Some critics have charged that the purpose of the FFDO program is to replace federal air marshals, but Mackett said the program sought to complement the marshal program.

He pointed out that a strong partnership has emerged in recent years between air marshals and armed pilots.

But given the limited numbers of marshals and the sophistication of some terrorist operations, APSA contends that well-trained armed pilots "locked away in the cockpit" would be far more difficult for terrorists to overcome than marshals in the passenger section of the aircraft.

"Terrorist probes have taken place against our industry in the past few years," Mackett said. "Some are very well-organized, well-prepared probes to see what resources we have and how we react."

Terrorists are very clever in how they go about probing for security holes, Marc Flagg, president of the Passenger-Cargo Security Group told Cybercast News Service.

"They are not doing anything illegal," said Flagg, who is also a pilot. "But it's clear they are testing the system." He declined to elaborate on the way this was being done but said it was happening in multiple instances.

'TSA is taking action'

According to TSA spokesman Conan Bruce, some of the major complaints raised by the pilots have already been addressed.

Thanks to "working groups" created last year, the TSA has already set in motion procedures to revise the transport procedure for the weapons that pilots use, Bruce told Cybercast News Service.

Bruce would not elaborate on what he termed sensitive security information. But he said the new transport methods would be "more discreet" and safer than the lockboxes.

Bruce also took issue with criticisms of the application process for FFDOs that include the psychological exam. "We have no intention of changing the application process, because it's appropriate," he said.

Creating additional venues for FFDO training is more of a challenge, Bruce acknowledged.

The existing facility in New Mexico matches the unique needs of the program, Bruce said. It includes airplanes, airplane simulations, firing ranges and sufficient accommodations. It is difficult to replicate this mix of components, for financial reasons, he added.

Bruce said the TSA has plans to create multiple sites for "re-current" training for pilots already participating in the FFDO program, Bruce said. A "prototype" for these new facilities already exists in Atlantic City, N.J.

And finally, the TSA has decided to issue badges for FFDOs so they can more easily be identified to members of the public and other law enforcement officials, Bruce said.

Flagg warned that the economic costs associated with terror attacks that involve hijacked aircraft would far surpass the damage done on 9/11.

Industry estimates show the U.S. losing $10 billion a week in the event an aircraft is lost anywhere in the world, he said.

"The question is, do we pay for security now or do we pay for it later?" Flagg added.

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