Friday, May 19, 2006

FAM Management a Disgrace

While we're on the subject of airplanes, here's something considerably less lighthearted than pretentiousness at 30,000 feet.

It seems that the Federal Air Marshals -- the men and women who fly undercover on commercial flights as the last line of defense against another airborne terrorist attack -- are being put at risk, along with the passengers they're charged with protecting, by the gross ineptitude of FAM management.

Such is the conclusion of a report by the House Judiciary Committee, which recently completed a two-year investigation (the investigation took a while because of FAM management stonewalling).

Here's an article link. Google air marshal anonymity and you'll get much more.

Some of the idiocy of FAM management is mind boggling. Grooming and dress codes, for undercover operators? And even if, as a FAM spokesman claims, those policies have been modified, why have any dress code at all? It's not as though management has to worry about the public impression FAMs might make because -- are we all taking notes? -- these men and women are under cover. No one is supposed to know who they are.

The reason they're under cover, I hope to needless to say, is because we don't want to make it easy for terrorists to know who to take out first. We want to make it hard for terrorists, not easy, right?

Don't be so sure. On several occasions, FAM management invited news crews to film FAMs training for their missions, and the footage and commentary were subsequently broadcast on network news. I imagine al Qaeda has been grateful for the opportunity to learn FAM tools, training, and tactics.

Think about the burden that FAMs accept. One mistake, and an entire plane full of people, including the FAMs, will die. It's possible that a FAM could have to stand by while passengers were executed before making his move if that's what were required to save everyone else on the plane. Imagine the emotional burden you would have to carry after such a "success." Imagine what it would cost you.

I'd say it's a pretty tough job, and a hell of an important one. So why are the people who purport to manage this organization making it so much harder? What are their motives? What is going on in their minds?

Cronyism in FEMA. And in the CIA. Maybe that's what's ailing the FAMs, too.

None of this is a coincidence. There's a pattern here. You might even call it a culture. And in my experience in business, cultures are always set at the top.


Anonymous said...

I don't have nearly enough knowledge to begin to know why this is happening. That said, it did bring FEMA to mind, as you mention. What are the credentials of the person who heads the FAM, and is that person truly qualified to be leading such a program?

David Adams, the Service's spokesperson quoted in the article you link to says this:

''Anonymity of the air marshals in our No. 1 concern,'' Adams said. ''But the boarding of air marshals is set by federal regulations, which Congress sets.''

So when exactly were those regulations set by Congress? Pre-9/11 or post-9/11? Given that Congress was quite willing to do things like pass the Patriot Act, I have a hard time believing Congress wouldn't act to modify any procedures that left FAM at risk, were they asked to do so. So Adams' statement smacks to me of passing the buck.

Makes me shake my head. On the one hand, we're doing things like creating warrantless domestic spying programs that capture data on millions of innocent Americans. On the other hand, we're blowing the cover of people on the front lines. Who exactly are we fighting this war on terror against? And are we getting so caught up in our gadgets and technology that we're ignoring basic, common-sense tradecraft?

I don't travel very often any more, but I used to. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that to blend in on an airplane, you need to consider the particular flight you are boarding. Some flights are dominated by business passengers. Others are dominated by vacationers. You should be studying the dress and behavior of such groups to decide how best to blend in.

I also think you'd want to leave it in the hands of the individual FAM to make the decision about what to wear. Sure, provide an analysis to assist in the decision. However, placing trust in your employees to know and do their jobs is not only good for morale, it's placing the decision in the hands of the people who have the most information to make a judgement call.

Anonymous said...

Good Saturday morning, Barry. Saw the short piece on FAM last night on 20/20 and was amazed that the Service would by their very protocol 'out' their own agents. When I was younger, people did 'dress' to fly, but in this day of casual travel the rules should be relaxed to the point of jeans and Nikes if need be. No special dress and no special treatment. As far as weapons are concerned, why not simply pull the FAM's aside in a 'random check' and provide the necessary euqipment then? Allow them to use their drivers' licenses just as we have to for ID. Position them throughout the plane. Such simple steps. (Maybe too simple?)
My one nagging thought is that here too as in other areas the people in charge underestimate the enemy...ignorance or arrogance?

Anonymous said...

I saw the piece on GOOD MORNING AMERICA yesterday and had trouble believing it too.

Business casual? Undercover law enforcement agents singled out at their hotels as “Customers of the Month?”

Barry makes a good point about the culture starting at the top.

The trouble is that any bureaucracy has rules. Lots of them. The bigger the bureaucracy, the more departments (or fiefdoms) there are, each with their own set of rules. And the people who work there are bureaucrats, by definition someone who follows the rules well and is not rewarded for breaking them, even when it makes perfect sense to do so or when there’s an obvious conflict. Because nobody ever got in trouble for saying, “I was following the rules. You’ll have to talk to my supervisor.” Therefore, changes have to come from the top.

Everybody remember when the Americans with Disabilities Act came on line in the early nineties?

One requirement of the Act was to make sidewalks accessible to people in wheelchairs. Sounds pretty simple, right? It didn’t quite work out that way.

One Dallas suburb ripped up all their curbs and put in ramps, according the requirements specified by whatever administrative body was tasked with that job. A few weeks later, another agency came along, and made them rip all the new ramps out and start over as they weren’t the correct angle and width.

You’ve got a great blog, Barry, on my short list of must-reads everyday. I look forward to the live version at Thrillerfest.

I. Michael Koontz said...

The missed point from nearly all discussions about the FAM program is this one:

It's all about public relations. Do we all really think that ONE PERSON, regardless of how well-trained he/she might be, can stop a whole group of possibly weapon-wielding terrorists from taking over an airplane? Is a FAM likely to discharge a firearm at 40,000 feet in a pressurized plane under almost any circumstance?

The FAM program is a 'feel-good' effort to calm nervous fliers. It is, of course, patently ridiculous to have a 'dress code', and even more ridiculous to disclose FAM techniques, and so on.

Of course, that's assuming that their purpose is to truly stop terrorists from hijacking planes.

And I'm not convinced that that is, in reality, the case.

BTW, I don't fly more than a few times a year, but a couple of times I've picked out an air marshal without any difficulty: once because they were engaged in a conversation on air-marshaling with a pilot in the boarding area, and once when there was this lone, severe-appearing very-vigilant fit young man staring down and assessing everyone who boarded, on a flight almost solely occupied by families with young children.

I'd say they need a little help in the 'blending in' process, sometimes.

Mindy Tarquini said...

I never spotted anybody and figured they were FAM.

Just goes to show, I'd make a lousy terrorist.

Do we all really think that ONE PERSON, regardless of how well-trained he/she might be, can stop a whole group of possibly weapon-wielding terrorists from taking over an airplane?

As Law Dawg says, there's more than one. And they're going to be helped by a planeful of crazed passengers intent on not being the subject of a movie like United 93. Even this bulky dame can fight pretty formidably if she thinks her babies are being threatened.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Harry, thanks for the kind words, and yes, the live, booze-fueled Tfest version ought to be a lot of fun.

I. Michael, I agree that every government-sponsored public security program is vested with some degree of talismanic purpose. But there's often substance at work, too. Let me ask you this: even if FAMs did work solo, rather than in teams, if your plane were hijacked, would you rather be alone, or flying with that solo FAM?

LD, thanks for your insights, as always.

David Terrenoire said...

A little slow to respond, as usual, but for what it's worth...

I want to thank law dawg for his contributions to this site. That he's here to walk us through these tactical conundrums is a real privilege. What a mitzvah.

As for the undercover dress code, I'm reminded of Panama in the 60's, when you could spot the undercover CID because of their uniform - high and tight haircut, white guyabera, black slacks and spit-shined shoes. And these were the narcs, the ones supposed to cozy up to dope-smoking GIs, the draftees with the droopy fu manchus and wire-rims, and say, "Hey guy, The Jefferson Airplane are so groovy. You got any of those marijuana cigarettes for sale?"

As for culture starting at the top, I've worked for about a dozen agencies, and in each, the personality of the place mirrored the man at the top. Friendly, competent, priorities where they should be? That's the way the place was from the bottom up. If the boss was insecure, suspicious of those around him, and had the arrogance that comes from too much money, too soon and too easily, well that shop was a viper's nest of incompetence and CYA.

I've been working as a writer for the EPA and the VA lately and in both I've heard from old-timers how this administration reaches down into the smallest decisions, making sure everything is on message, which means for the EPA, changing scripts so that all responsibility for pollution and cleanup falls on the individual and never the corporation. For the VA, a gloss of happy shit in spite of some ugly truths, which for the vets means just more sunshine being blown up their skirts.

So this report on FAMs doesn't surprise me at all. It seems to be a pattern across the board.

I. Michael Koontz said...

In response to others above:

I'm sure the FAM's are well-trained. I'm sure they do work "in teams." I guess I can believe that if a terrorist pulled a knife or gun, that they MIGHT shoot them--carefully. Maybe there ARE situations where they would discharge a firearm at 40,000 feet--I am now willing to admit that.

However, no one can convince me that there are TEAMS of FAM's on each and every airplane flight in the U.S. That it's realistically thought that a couple of FAM's on a flight can stabilize a chaotic situation. Because I don't think that is the case--or, necessarily, the true purpose of the program.

Nope--I don't buy it. Sure, FAM's would help the passengers disarm, maim, or kill terrorists on a plane. Heck yeah! And yes, knowing there was an FAM on my flight might make me feel better about that particular flight.

But you're all missing the greater point: the FAM program is a deterrence program to dissuade terrorists from hijacking planes. Maybe a visible official FAM presence is EXACTLY what we want on planes, as opposed to the undercover "are there or aren't there FAM's on this flight" presence.

Perhaps we want a little of each, really: on some flights have them uniformed and pistol-packing; on others, undercover.

But we have to let the terrorists KNOW this! Because deterrence only works if the deterring factor is in the public's realm of information (think of the end of the film Dr. Strangelove to see how NOT to do it.)

In a true hijacking emergency, it'll be nice to have an ally in the form of an FAM or two. But their true purpose is in creating good PR and deterrence. In some ways, if there's ever a hijacking incident, that'll be termed a failure of program. It's a program aimed at prevention more than overt action.

Anonymous said...

I. Michael Koontz, I agree with part of your logic, but not in how you extrapolate from it. Sure, we want the terrorists to know that there are FAMs on planes, because there is a deterrence factor there. I also agree that deterring an attack is better than trying to stop one once it has begun.

However, I've seen it publicly stated that FAMs are not on all flights. That only makes sense, if you think about the number of flights every day, and the size of staff that would be required to cover all flights. We only have so much money for defense, and planes aren't the only avenue of attack.

Given that you can't cover every flight, what seems most logical to me is a) advertise that there is such a program, but b) make it impossible (or as difficult as possible) for terrorists to know exactly which flights will have FAM on them. Also make it as hard as possible for them to know which seats are occupied by FAMs, so they don't know in advance who to take out first.

Kind of like how stores will have some very visible security cameras so you know you are being watched, but other cameras you don't see so you aren't quite sure exactly where you are and are not being watched.

There's your best deterrence, IMO, given resource limitations.

Anonymous said...

"Kind of like how stores will have some very visible security cameras so you know you are being watched, but other cameras you don't see so you aren't quite sure exactly where you are and are not being watched."

Should clarify my analogy to distinguish it from your thought to have some flights with visible FAM and others with covert FAMs. I think advertising the existence of the program is sufficient for the "visible security camera" part of the analogy. No need to provide visible FAMs on any flights, because then the terrorist might even prefer those, since they will know who to take out first and won't have the messy "are they there/aren't they there" variable to deal with.

Anonymous said...

How do you train someone intensely for the kind of operations that FAMs are supposed to handle and not give any kind of outward clue as to your capabilities?

I think you do it with how you dress.

The other consideration is what kind of training these terrorists possess. How savy are they about American culture. Can they tell the difference between a "yuppie" or a "preppie"...:)
Pancho(Barry knows who I am..:))

Barry Eisler said...

Pancho! Good to have you here, my friend. For those who don't know him, Pancho is an unnecessarily modest, bicultural (Mexican-American) bilingual (Spanish-English) former badass with a heart of gold and terrific martial arts and self-defense instructor. He's been there, done that and is well worth listening to. I would go on but I know that would embarrass him...

Hope to see more of you here, amigo.

John DuMond said...

"I think you do it with how you dress."

Not necessarily. I've known a couple of very proficient martial artists who looked, and dressed, like dorks. Of course I'd never tell them that.

Anonymous said...

John D., I think that's what Pancho was saying.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pancho! Sounds like john d. has met you!

Justin (Pancho knows who I am..:))

Anonymous said...

As far as dress codes go, the object is to not stand out. Attempting to not assume that the FAM management is run by idiots, perhaps they are trying to go for a 'one size fits all' dress code that does not raise eyebrows on either commuter flights (which FAMs do cover) or on resort-destination flights.

Just a thought.


Barry Eisler said...

Justin, great to see you here. At this rate, HOTM may become the world's only blog peopled primarily by writers, martial artists, and the odd lurking special operator...

A quick intro: in addition to a PhD in physics and a second dan in Danzan ryu jiu-jitsu, Justin is one of the most clear-sighted, level-headed people I know. Justin, thanks for bringing up the possibility that FAM management might have been trying to inject a degree of invisibility that randomness by itself might not have provided. And to take it one stop further, I suppose it's possible that the guidelines were instituted in response to a few FAMs dressing obviously.

Still, if I were running the show, I would put my faith in the judgment of individual FAMs (if they don't have good judgment, who does?). Sure, a few people might not have a knack for blending, but I don't think that's a problem an across-the-board dress code can solve. Regardless, I have a feeling the truth will be less flattering than your eminently fair-minded hypothesis, but as a certain philosopher likes to say, "We shall see..."

Thanks again for coming by, my friend, and I hope to see more of you.

Anonymous said...

Nice place ye got here!

(Kicks up, throws feet on the coffee table)

Now I guess I ought to throw out a few comments, since I'm here - make it look good and all that. ;)

I. Michael Koontz said: "However, no one can convince me that there are TEAMS of FAM's on each and every airplane flight in the U.S. That it's realistically thought that a couple of FAM's on a flight can stabilize a chaotic situation. Because I don't think that is the case--or, necessarily, the true purpose of the program."
Well, I can't speak for 'the program' since I'm not in any way involved with it, but no-one would ever have convinced me someone can skin a grape whole and then sew the skin back on, leaving an almost invisible seam - until I saw a surgeon do it. No-one would ever convince me that someone could hit 3x5 cards blind from around a corner until I saw a Sergeant do it. No-one would ever convince me that I could be able to overpower a musclebound gorilla with the slightest of movements until I learned how to do it. What people [b]think[/b] professionals in any given field can do is usually very different from what they [b]can[/b] do - and their skills are often astonishing to outsiders.

"But you're all missing the greater point: the FAM program is a deterrence program to dissuade terrorists from hijacking planes. Maybe a visible official FAM presence is EXACTLY what we want on planes, as opposed to the undercover "are there or aren't there FAM's on this flight" presence."
Think about this for a second: what's scarier - knowing there's a FAM on the aircraft, or thinking there [b]might[/b] be a FAM on the aircraft? One whom you can't identify - one who can shoot the eyes off a fly at fifty meters. An obvious presence isn't scary at all - it's a clear target. But just think about the last time you flew. Who sat beside you? Some college kid? A middle-age vacationer? A party of backpackers? A young mother? ANY of them could be a FAM - if you're a terrorist, the threat could be [b]anywhere[/b]. Or not present at all - you just don't know. That's the real benefit - aside from the high level of capability of the FAMs - for air travel: the uncertainty of whether or not a FAM team is onboard. Something to think about. :)

Dave O. (Pancho and Justin know who I am. ;) )

Barry Eisler said...

Yep, more retired military and martial artists... there goes the neighborhood...

Folks, Dave O is former Canadian army with some hellish peacekeeping assisgnments under his belt. He's also hardcore into aikido and a thoughtful guy.

In case anyone's wondering where all these n'er-do-wells are coming from, it's from a listserv run by Marc MacYoung and Dianna Gordon at NNSD is the most comprehensive, sensible, and often very funny site on the subject I know, and what I've learned there has made the Rain books better. For anyone interested in martial arts, self-defense, fighting, combat, and related subjects (they're not the same -- go to NNSD to find out more), I highly recommend the site.

But bring a cup of coffee, as they like to say there. You'll want to stay a while.

Dave, thanks for coming by, and I hope to see you here more often.


Anonymous said...

If the FAM is in condition to do the job, (and the one I know certainly is), they can't pass as just anyone. Maybe they should dress Zoolander style... ;-)

Having more options in dress would increase their chances of retaining anonymity as well as enhancing manueverability. It might also allow for more choice in concealed carry -- I don't know how strictly that is regulated, and shouldn't, as a member of the general public. What we know, the terrorists know if they've done their homework.

Mr. Koontz:
Why would you want to put a FAM in uniform (either actual or by rigid mandated dress code) and thereby mark him/her as the first target to be taken out? The idea is to have the guy most able to deal with the threat most available to do so.

(Pancho and Justin and Dave know who I am)

Barry Eisler said...

Now the neighborhood is really going... ;-)

Folks, Sharon is a hapkido instructor who has homeschooled five kids. I think she gets her bearing from the first and her patience from the second. She's smart and insightful and not hard on the eyes, either (oops, did I say that out loud?).

Thanks for coming by, Sharon, it's great to have you here.

Anonymous said...

Barry, you forgot to mention she's also possibly the sweetest, most generous soul on the planet. :)

(Sharon, do I get a hug for saying that? ;-) )


Anonymous said...


Trying to blow my cover? I doubt my students would agree with your assessment, but far be it from me to disillusion you... Hug? Sure, I owe you one. ;-)

Yes, Barry, I know we're supposed to be discussing the FAM issues. I blame Dave... :)


Anonymous said...

Hi Folks,

I heard from a little bird that this is the place for some interesting discussions...

Re. The FAM issue: Management not having a clue seems to be the norm in lots of fields IMHO, governement and private sector alike. I don't know about you all but I've seen that dynamic at work a lot more than the opposite: management and the people out in the field in sync with one and other. So is this an issue specific to the FAMs or just one that applies in general?
Just throwing it out there, as a friend of mine would say... :-)

Other than that, I think Barry should train his legs more. But that's just me...


Barry Eisler said...


Folks, Wim Demeere is another high-quality person I met through He's one of the finest martial artists and teachers I've ever known. He's also a trilingual, internationally experienced Belgian and all round deep thinker. Oh, and did I mention his legs? For a couple pictures of Wim trying valiantly to teach me to kick, check out

Wim, my experience tracks yours: most management is barely worthy of the name. My one experience to the contrary is my old law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges. They were unusually squared away. In the absence of a profit motive (at least an overt one) and market competition, I would guess that most government management is even less impressive than its private cousins.

But... I can live with some ineptitude in some agencies more easily than in others. If the Department of Education is dysfunctional, at least states can run the show. If managers at the CIA and FBI are screwing things up, the consequences are worse, IMO.

Hope to see you here more often, my friend, legs and all.