Monday, November 19, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - The Top Secret Clearance - #3

So, thanks to my infatuation with the Smith & Wesson Chief Special that my ex-College roommate, Mike, showed me when he returned from Sky Marshal school, I rushed to sign up for training and was hired forthwith.

In 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and few other wannabe international terrorist groups, had made the skies very unfriendly for western air carriers – especially Pan Am and TWA. As a result, Uncle Sam was in a “hair-on-fire” hurry to assemble a cadre of trained Sky Marshals to protect civilian aircraft.

In fact they were in such a hurry that I was headed for Treasury Air Security Officer School, then housed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, before the proper authorities had even begun the full-field background investigation which I needed to pass with flying colors in order for me to earn the Top Secret clearance required for employment with the Treasury Department.

At that time the US Customs was part of the Treasury Department, along with the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service and the Executive Protective Service – the uniformed brand of the Secret Service who guarded the White House, Congress and other key Washington facilities.

The other face of Federal law enforcement back in the '70's was the Justice Department under whose umbrella fell the FBI, US Marshal Service, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs which was soon renamed the Drug Enforcement Agency…an oddly ironic name because in those days it didn’t seem as if anyone needed much encouragement, let alone enforcement, to use drugs.

Need I tell you that the rivalry between Treasury and Justice made the enmity between the Army and Navy seem tender by comparison. Naturally the Federal agents who conducted my background investigation while I was in Sky Marshal school came from the FBI.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, but my student buddies who were interviewed as part of the investigation into my decidedly vanilla past thought the whole thing was some absurd joke. I was told sometime later that more than one of them – shall we say – “embellished” details about my life in the hopes that their fanciful tales might dissuade the government from hiring me.

The FBI interviews one of my hippie acquaintances

Either the FBI had sense of humor – unheard of before or since – or the fabrications lacked the ring of truth because I was awarded the necessary Top Secret clearance. I did learn of one incident involving a dark-suited Federal agent interviewing a couple of my college chums one of whom was sporting her usually hippie-chick ensemble – clothing chosen to demonstrate that one could be a braless earth mother and a hot babe at the same time.

I’m still in the dark about what secrets I was to have been trusted with. You see, the Sky Marshal program was anything but secret. Almost as soon as the air security program started, it was featured on CBS news with no less that the revered anchorman Walter Cronkite informing the world at large that Sky Marshals sat in seat 7B, which as we will later see, was the aisle seat in the first row of First Class just aft of the foremost cabin door on a typical Pan Am 747.

A cynical person may suspect that 1500 or so Sky Marshals were public relations cannon fodder, and the goal of the Air Security program was not the actual protection of every single airplane but rather positioning armed personnel on enough flights to create the impression that the skyways were no longer so vulnerable to hijackers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

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