Congressman: Air Marshals cost $200 million per arrest

Paleoconservative Republican Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. has called for the abolition of the Air Marshal Service, arguing that more air marshals have been arrested since 9/11 (for crimes like smuggling explosives, domestic violence, drunk driving and human trafficking) than the number of people arrested by the marshals. The $860 million spent on the service amounts to about 4.2 arrests per year, at a cost of $200 million per arrest.
Professor Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania wrote last year about the money feeding frenzy of the war on terror. And he wrote this: "Nearly 7 years after September 11, 2001,'' he wrote this last year, "what accounts for the vast discrepancy between the terrorist threat facing America and the scale of our response? Why, absent any evidence of a serious terror threat, is a war to on terror so enormous, so all-encompassing, and still expanding? The fundamental answer is that al Qaeda's most important accomplishment was not to hijack our planes but to hijack our political system."

"For a multitude of politicians, interest groups and professional associations, corporations, media organizations, universities, local and State governments and Federal agency officials, the war on terror is now a major profit center, a funding bonanza, and a set of slogans and sound bites to be inserted into budget, grant, and contract proposals.''

Duncan Blasts "Useless" Air Marshal Service (via Schneier)


  1. This is the height of “bad math”. I am a far left leaning liberal (to the point of socialism) but I think the Air Marshall program is worth it.

    a) It makes people feel safe about flying. The commercial aviation industry employs tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people, directly and indirectyly. Unemployment for 25% of those people if people stopped flying would have major repercussions in the US economy.

    b) You cannot determine how many attacks/events were prevented because of the Air Marshall program. Before your main (and really only) concern if you wanted to do harm on an airplane was getting through the airport security. Now we know the whole deal with security theater. The little metal detector and taking your shoes of fisn’t really there to catch the bad guys (see #1 above). But if the bad guys know there are guys with guns on board who actually have some authority? Different story.

    Money well spent.

    1. Bad math? It seems to me the numbers in the original post are concrete and the correct operations (division) are applied. In your post, however, you pull a number (25%) out of nowhere and make baseless assumptions on the efficacy of Air Marshals as a deterrent.

      I can just as easily add anecdotal evidence (mine) to say that Air Marshals do not make me feel any safer on an airplane. In fact having any guns on an airplane seems like a dubious proposition to me.

      1. I do see the irony of me using made up numbers to argue against “bad math” but the fact remains: If people don’t feel the flying is safe then they won’t fly. If people don’t fly, airlines lose money. If airlines lose money they either shut down or lay off workers. End result: people out of jobs.

        If people were to stop flying it wouldn’t just affect the airlines. It would have an effect on the travel industry as a whole (hotels, travel agents, etc).

    2. There is a big difference between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. That being said, a quick search at the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number of employees for 2008 in the air transportation industry at 492,600. 25% of this is 123,150 jobs. 123,150 jobs lost would result in an increase in national unemployment of 0.08%. Do you still think it would have major repercussions on our economy? How about taking all the money spent on false security and putting it into education here in the US and in countries that foster terrorist organizations?

      Using a cost/benefit analysis for any professionally run organization is a good idea. I hardly think that you can justify the air marshall program by saying that “if the bad guys know there are guys with guns on board who actually have some authority? Different story.” Just because it scares you/makes you feel safer doesn’t mean it scares someone willing to die for their cause.

      I’m very curious about the quality of arrests made by air marshalls. How many were drunk, unruly passengers? How many were from frazzled flight attendants who can’t take any more crap from cranky fliers and escalate a disagreement over getting up to use the bathroom into something larger? Are those arrests worth the high cost? Does anyone know where I can find this out?

    3. Guy’s out walking in Manhattan when he sees a street vendor selling unmarked aerosol cans. He’s curious and asks what’s in them, and the vendor says, “Tiger repellent.” The guy points out that there are no tigers in New York City, and the vendor replies, “See how well it works?”

    4. No Lisa Simpson “I have a rock that repels tiger attacks.” quote yet?

      Anyway, plenty have argued that the game’s been changed anyway, passengers before 9/11 thought a hijacking would mean a few hours/days of captivity, and if you stayed docile you’ll get out of it alive. But after that morning most will probably think they’re on their way into the side of a building, meaning they’ll fight for their lives, making the terrorists’ lives harder.

      Of course, the terrorists know this, and they’ve more than likely written hijackings off their books.

      Of course shoe and underwear bombers are a different scenario altogether, but it seems the 2 bombers that got stopped in the… 9 years have been stopped by passengers.

  2. > b) You cannot determine how many attacks/events were prevented because of the Air Marshall program.

    there is a nice simpsons quote for this:

    Homer: Well, there’s not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is sure doing its job.
    Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
    Homer: Thank you, sweetie.
    Lisa: Dad, what if I were to tell you that this rock keeps away tigers.
    Homer: Uh-huh, and how does it work?
    Lisa: It doesn’t work. It’s just a stupid rock.
    Homer: I see.
    Lisa: But you don’t see any tigers around, do you?
    Homer: Lisa, I’d like to buy your rock.

  3. There are guns on the planes? What can terrorists do with guns on planes? How can they get these guns? 10 years in martial art schools?

  4. Now that passengers are aware that hijackers wish to crash the planes into buildings rather than take them to libya, there will be no more hijackings. Air Marshalls are unnecessary.

  5. John J. Duncan, Jr. seems to be under the impression that the War on Terror and common sense have something to do with one another.

  6. I think the hon congressman has a good point. How much do the israelis spend on marshalls? Who needs drunk marshalls? What’s stopping the tourists blowing up a building? Do their varied manifestos focus on jetliners, tolerating no deviation, doing things the way they’ve always been done because that’s the way they do it?

    How many arrests led to conviction?

    My friend, the height of bad maths (you left leaner you, this you should know) was the presidential imposition of GWB, twice.

    You’ve leaned all the way from reason into hyperbole.

    Fuck it – give the contract to Xe. Hire mercs to do the job. Why – they might be worse behaved and create more jobs in the judiciary!

  7. It is not a problem of costs. It is a problem of placement. If they just put the Air Marshals only on the flights the terrorists were taking, the arrests would be much more economical.

  8. First, I want to state that I think the Air Marshals program is one of the few things about air travel security that’s actually being done right. Measuring $/arrest is an inaccurate way to track something that’s meant mostly as a deterrent. Few incidents means it’s working.

    With that out of the way,

    al Qaeda’s most important accomplishment was not to hijack our planes but to hijack our political system

    They’re only now starting to understand that? Better late than never, I guess.

    1. meant mostly as a deterrent. Few incidents means it’s working.

      Exactly! Speaking of which, I’ve got some polar bear repellent you might be interested in. I’ve been using it my whole life and it’s 100% effective!

        1. Well I can tell you this much: It’s sure not polar bear habitat when my repellent is around!

          I mean, sure, you can be all sciencey about it. But the only way to tell if it’s normally their habitat would be to stop using the repellent, and then get attacked by a polar bear. And who wants to do that? Exactly. 15% if you buy 10 or more…might as well stock up!

    2. For people who have already accepted death and their goal is to crash the plane, I do not understand how an air marshal is a deterrent.

  9. “more air marshals have been arrested since 9/11 (for crimes like smuggling explosives, domestic violence, drunk driving and human trafficking) than the number of people arrested by the marshals.”

    I would watch this TV program.

    1. Air marshals undergo rigorous background checks and have the highest security clearances in government. Where do you get this notion that they are criminals. What a laugh. This is absurd. I for one am glad that I’m protected on flights. They are super tough and superbly trained.

      1. They may be tough and superbly trained, but because they rarely (for most never) deal with terrorists they could easily be caught off guard and have their gun (that would be cruel, sorry “weapon”) taken from them. In training they may be alert to somebody trying to take their gun, but when they ride day in and day out without an incident it is only natural that they should be surprised and unprepared when somebody tries to take their gun.

  10. Who would have thought I would come to view the term “paleo-conservative” as an honorable title implying ones views were worth considering!

  11. I’m actually fond of the Air Marshals at the moment, because they expose a central fallacy of the current practice of airline security.

    The issue is not liquids, gels, nail clippers, knives or guns on planes. We already have guns on planes, in the hands of marshals, and nothing goes wrong because we know who they are and trust them.

    Therefore, it is possible to determine in advance that someone is not likely to hijack a plane, even if they possess the means and opportunity.

    Even the most casual review of my own personal background and work history would lead to the conclusion that I present no threat, and that I should simply be waved through. Given the nature of my work, multiple, thorough reviews by various parties have reached the conclusion that I can be trusted. I wish they’d just write that down somewhere.

    Rather than exotic detection machines, replace the current trivial processes for determining identity, and leave responsible citizens to their business.

  12. Mr. txhoudini: Yes, you CAN tell how many attacks/events were prevented by the air marshal program. Their job is to be on the plane and take action is such an event occurs. So if this had happenned, everyone would know.
    Also, their deterrent value is nil in that their numbers are so few that any terrorist would ignore the possibility of running into an Air Marshal in carrying out an attack.

  13. I don’t agree with the congressman’s metric, I’m not sure that dollars per arrest is really the right thing to focus on. But I do agree with his sentiment that perhaps we should re-examine our spending priorities vis a vis this “War of Terror” thing.

    I do have to wonder why he didn’t consider this until the budget was in the hands of a Democrat though. . . .

    -abs isn’t thrilled with having to agree with a Republican, but then again he’s never thrilled when he has to agree with a Democrat either, in the he just chalks both up to the “even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day” phenomenon

    1. Abs, it’s only wrong when the other team does it. Which holds doubly true when your Party’s (the Senator’s, that is) currency is built on hypocrisy.

      That said, I don’t really care what side of the aisle a glimmer of cogent perception of reality emerges from. These wasteful wars-on-things are bankrupting this country. It’s been high-time to have a good, long think about priorities on spending for 30+ years. But, as TJ S said, better late than never.

      1. Yeah, I have a really hard disputing that it’s better to at least examine this now instead of continuing it.

        Alas, I don’t think the US is likely to give up our “War on a Concept” mentality. I do find it interesting that the only “wars” we actually choose to prosecute are what I consider conservative ones. Look at the difference between the “War on Drugs” and it’s funding and support and the “War on Poverty” for an example.

        -abs isn’t really all that much more hostile to the Rep. party than the Dem. party in theory, but the Bush years of hypocrisy upon hypocrisy combined with the ever-increasing desire to make the President a king that the Rep. party displayed when it was their guy in power have left a pretty bad taste in his mouth

        1. The “War on Terror” is an idiotic phrase and as you point out is “war” on a concept. Imagine if FDR on 8 December 1941 had asked Congress to declare “War On Carrier-Borne Bomb and Torpedo Carrying Aircraft”.

          We’ll never win a war unless it is against a named enemy whose surrender we are determined to obtain.

          “Wars on concepts” (terror, drugs, poverty) are by their nature never going to be won. If they were won, the American forces engaged would have to be demobilized!

          1. “”Wars on concepts” (terror, drugs, poverty) are by their nature never going to be won. If they were won, the American forces engaged would have to be demobilized!”

            And how.

            I’m actually fairly sure that’s why they get declared that way. Take our “War on Terror” for example. If we’d declared war on Afghanistan, which I would have totally supported after 9/11, we could have won that war after the Taliban fell. Then we’d have to stop the civil-rights impositions and everything else we’ve been doing. I believe that would be directly in contradiction with Cheney’s desires vis a vis the “Unitary Executive” theory he is so beloved of.

            By instead declaring “War” (deliberately in quotes) on a concept instead of a nation Bush (or Cheney if you like that sort of dark conspiracy theory) guaranteed that the war would never end. That allows the executive to retain it’s “war-powers” that otherwise would have to be given up.

            Similarly the “War on Drugs” has allowed the government to systematically dismantle a host of legal protections we used to have. *cough “No knock, 3 AM, military-style SWAT raids” cough*

            -abs is afraid this isn’t really news though, Goebbels did it with his “Big Lie” and before him Orwell did pretty damn well in pointing out that “we’ve always been at war with EastAsia”, oh well, I guess humans will be humans . . . .

  14. This type of waste hits me a bit harder lately. Maybe its making the country marginally safer, but the amount of money that is being spent on it….if that money was put to education for example, how many students like myself WOULD be going to graduate school this year? (I just turned down two schools because they’re lacking funding right now and I’m unable provide much on my end.)

  15. I don’t see the purpose of a deterrent. If it were really possible to make planes 100% safe from a terrorist’s bomb then they would just blow up their bomb somewhere else. The only thing we should try to do when it comes to airplane security is to prevent a hijacking, because then the whole plane becomes a weapon that is much more powerful than any explosive somebody could come up with. This idea is in the same vein as preventing people from purchasing automatic weapons and guided missiles because there is no legitimate reason for them. The only way to fight terrorism is through intelligence and ideological warfare.

  16. This statistic is quoted in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine (April 2010). From the always awesome Harper’s Index:

    Average number of arrests made each year since 2001 by all 4,000 Federal Air Marshals combined: 4
    Federal spending this represents per arrest: $200,000,000

    I was going to be stunned that a conservative is getting their info from Harper’s, but it turns out to be the other way around: Harper’s gives their source as Office of U.S. Representative John J. Duncan, Jr (Washington).

    Having said this, the biggest surprise to me about this morning’s story about the Qatar diplomat smoking and/or being sarcastic on the flight from was not his sarcasm or his diplomatic immunity, but rather that there were two — two! — air marshals riding in first class on this flight.

    1. “…but rather that there were two — two! — air marshals riding in first class on this flight.”

      When I read that yesterday, I thought it strange since many flights often don’t even have one. Then there’s that thing about flying FIRST CLASS. Me is starting to think that Federal Air Marshals flying aboard planes is some elaborate gov’t subsidy for the Airline industry…

      I bet that’s where the lot of money is going.

  17. By this logic, it bears pointing out that the US Military costs about $10 trillion for every war it fights.

    (Not gonna get into winning/losing. Fill in your preferred word on your own.)

  18. If I was to terrorize, specifically, an airport, I would take a suitcase loaded with explosives, drop it off just before a security checkpoint at an airport, and remotely blow it up.

    That would make this entire charade look like a joke.

  19. I tell you it’s that damned affected Texas accent that got everybody confused. GWB was saying “tourists”, not “terr’ists”, and “tourism”, not “terr’ism”.

    1. Thats what you get when you’re from the northeast and try to play rural Texan. GW is the only person I have heard in Texas with that accent.

  20. It seems that unarmed and knife armed passengers(9-11) are more effective at stopping terrorists than federal marshals paid to watch movies and read books for years on end. Perhaps we should put the air marshal budget into a fund and let frequent fliers apply for handgun carry permits. These responsible citizens would get to pick out prizes from the airline catalogs for their trouble. It is time to recognize the most effective component of the air safety system instead of constantly punishing it.

  21. A “Cops Fly Free” program might be less expensive than the current system, but would of course create its own set of problems.

  22. Leaving aside the fact that I can’t agree more with Rep. Duncan, he made these comments almost a year ago. Not that things have likely changed much, but it does seem odd that we’re all suddenly aware of this. It also makes the Harper’s cite even more amusing.
    dated June 19, 2009.

  23. How about the amount of money spent on searching everyone and their shoes vs. number of bombs found – I’d like to see those numbers for comparison.

    1. That’s like a trillion dollars and no bombs. Remember, Mr. Sizzly Pants was caught *on* the plane by *passengers*. Ditto for Mr. Fun Shoes. Even when TSA is trying to sneak bombs on board (as in a test of search efficacy) they fail to locate the bombs and/or components. They will, however, likely have no trouble locating your blinky-type t-shirt and quickly have you arrested as a terr’ist.

  24. They just need to start arresting many more people – that would bring the cost per arrest down.

  25. Predicting the future of travel: all passengers will be put to sleep once on-board only to be revived upon arrival.

  26. This is dumb logic. The value of having air marshals on planes isn’t the number of arrests they make; it’s on the number of security threats, like attempts at hijackings, that they deter. Maybe the reason there have been so few hijacking attempts on US planes since 9/11 is because aspiring hijackers know that there’s an armed police officer on the plane.

  27. Away with it! If we can’t be bothered to spend money to save lives by making healthcare more widely available, why are we spending so much to save a few lives by catching terrorists? If the passengers want security on their flights, let them insist that the airlines provide it or, even better, hire a security guard to go on the flight with them. It shouldn’t be the big socialist nanny government’s job to protect you on an airline flight.

    Disclaimer : I don’t even know if I’m being serious.

  28. There have been exactly 2 post 9/11 changes to air safety that have been effective and worthwhile. The first change was reinforced and locked doors to the cockpit. This made taking over an airplane extremely hard and made the second and BY FAR the most effective change even more effective.

    The greatest and most effective air security change? Passengers have been told and are completely convinced about the merits of kicking anyone’s ass who looks like they might be causing trouble. When you look at thwarted bombing attacks, not a single one of these fuckers was thwarted by airport security. They were all either thwarted by law enforcement on the ground stopping the group in the planning stages, or by passengers. The few instances where air marshals stepped in, it was only after the passengers had disarmed and subdued the suspect.

    If we really wanted to do something to keep increasing the safety of passengers, it would be to continue encouraging that they take their safety into their own hands and perhaps give them better access to weapons. I am not saying that we need to give passengers guns and knives, but I bet plans would be a lot safer if every plane had a police club under the seat. It is a pretty worthless weapon to terrorize someone with, but an awesome weapon when you out number the attackers and just want to incapacitate them.

  29. Here’s how to save a few trillion. Pull all US troops out of Afghanistan. Put a couple of soldiers on each flight. Tired of untrained, idiot TSA personnel doing your airport screenings? Use military personnel. They’re cheap, they’re fully trained and they’d be actually serving their country instead of destroying someone else’s.

  30. Note that the FAMs may not be the only armed people on your flight. The TSA has the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, where pilots are allowed to be armed in flight:

    Note that on at least one occasion, a pilot accidentally discharged his weapon in the cockpit (insert joke here).

    And, no, the FAMs aren’t whipping out credit cards to pay for full first class tickets. That’s been a point of contention between the FAMs and the airlines. The airlines want those first class seats for high-value paying pax, not FAMs on more or less free tickets.

    And, some of the FAMs are easy to spot. That have that ex-military look. Clean cut. Neat hair. Khaki slacks. Polo shirt discretely outside their pants, over their holster.

    That all said, I agree that the FAM program, the “war” on drugs, on terrorism, farm subsidy bills, professional sports arenas, are all vast tax dollar hog troughs that drain the bank accounts of ordinary citizens and line the pockets of the privileged, with absolutely no meaningful return on the tax dollars invested. Sorry for the mixed metaphor.

  31. How many tax dollars per *killed* passenger?
    Turns out the guy shot below had psychological issues and was otherwise no threat.

    Wednesday, December 7, 2005

    An American Airlines Boeing 757A United States federal air marshal shot dead on Wednesday an American Airlines passenger named Rigoberto Alpizar on American Airlines Flight 924, a Boeing 757, at Miami International Airport, in Miami, Florida, USA.

  32. Glad to see that some people are paying attention to how silly it is to pay money to deal with people’s fears. Air Marshals make as much sense as Zombie Patrol Officers.

  33. have any of you even read this, what it really says…..its stating that more air marshals have been arrested for illegal activities than potential terrorists. that the people they have you believing are keeping you safe, or that you are being told that thats what they are there for, are the ones that have been arrested for varying degrees of activities ranging from transportation of explosives to drunk driving, even spousal abuse… I read through the comments left, it was very apparent that alot of you glossed right over that tid bit of information and went right to your political agendas….

  34. If people were to stop flying it wouldn’t just affect the airlines. It would have an effect on the travel industry as a whole (hotels, travel agents, etc).

    No offense good sir, but fuck the people’s fear.

    We are creating a neurotic society that breaks down and shits itself over every tiny and improbable danger that happens its way.

    Remember the absurdity a few years back when there was a “spike” in shark attacks? People were afraid to go into the water, states were spending extra money on shark protection, and the beach industry lost millions. Oops! It turns out that shark attacks were actually running about average with lightening strikes, drowning, and choking on little plastic toys all killing orders of magnitude more people.

    We are becoming crazy, and it is hurting us. It gives politicians a way to control us, and we expend vast resources on shit that isn’t scary or dangerous. Think of all of the countless wonders we could have performed if we had never created the DHS or bothered to invade Iraq or Afghanistan. The amount of money we have payed for exactly nothing should make your bowls loosen.

    For MY anti-terror policy, I want the government to tell people to fucking grow up, get over their paranoia, and act like humans with a little fucking dignity, instead of crying and whining because they have a one in a few million chance of being struck dead in some absurdly remote manner. Lets spend money on helping people to grow a pair instead of setting up an elaborate security theater to cater to the paranoid delusions of the populace.

  35. Why waste all that money on expensive undercover agents? Instead hire an armed security guard to sit in forward jump seat and watch the cabin in plain sight. A FAM’s primary objective is to protect the cockpit.

  36. How many more of the shoes of the innocent must be inspected before we realize that the enemy is not the shoe, but it is the…uh…damn! I really thought I was on to something, there. Anyway, if I have to compare the warm feeling of safety I get from the 70 year-old-inspector/grandfather-figure on the ground vs. the armed and angry air marshall that may be three seats back? I’m taking the air marshall. If I’m dying, I’m dying at 30,000 feet with a bullet in YOUR head, not barefoot at LAX, looking for my cell phone and wondering if I can keep my pants up without my belt. This is MERCA,dammit!

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