Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Everyone Loves a Man in a Uniform - #26

In the beginning, Federal Air Security Officers, or Sky Marshals as they were popularly known (these days, Air Marshals), guarded US passenger flights dressed as civilians, which everyone knows is called operating “under cover.” This undercover in flight security continued from the instigation of the program in late 1970 to the termination of in-flight efforts around the end of 1972, for me that is. I've heard that the program continued on into 1974 for others. Those Sky Marshals with an eye towards a career in law enforcement dispersed to other Federal agencies, while I and others remained in US Customs as uniformed Customs Security Officers.

Our original 30 days of Sky Marshal training was mainly about shooting and arresting, but mostly about shooting. We had a few classes about the law governing our role as in-flight security personnel and not too much else. I think the idea was to get as many armed guards in the air as fast as possible. I don’t think any of the brains behind the program gave much thought to what Sky Marshals would do once they came out from under cover and had to behave like policemen and women.

After my swan-song flight accompanying Paraguayan Dictator Alfredo Stroessner and his happy crew of sycophants from Panama City to Asuncion, Paraguay, in the Fall of 1972, I was assigned to pre-flight screening and whatever other chores the AIC, or Agent in Charge, could invent to keep us out of trouble.

Our uniform was a white shirt with two flap pockets, a blue tie, blue serge pants and a saucer cap. We were expected to supply our own black shoes and belt. But, hey, if I was going to wear a uniform I wanted it to look sharp, so I had my shirts ironed with three creases and bought real shiny black, basket weave embossed, policeman’s utility belt with holder, bullet and hand cuff pouches and “keepers” – tiny straps that looped around your pants belt – designed to keep the utility belt up around your waist…or drag everything down to your thighs.

I’m sure that cop belt and creases were a little “gung ho” for matter-of-fact Customs guys, but no one said anything to my face. I did get some heat for carrying a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum with Goncalo Alves grips. Except for the larger caliber it was virtually the same as the .38 Cal. Combat Masterpiece they trained us with. On the other hand, regulations stated that we had to carry the gun we were issued. For me this meant the Chief's Special.

I had chosen to swap Chief for the .357 after being assigning to patrol the corridors and jet ways of SFO. No longer confined to the confines of an airline cabin, if – God Forbid – I did have to shoot at someone the chances were good that it would be at a greater distance than across a few rows of airplane seats. And, as wonderful a gun as the Chief was, with only a 2” barrel, it’s accurate only at close range. Still, regs are regs so the shiny, black, basket weave embossed utility belt went into the closet, the cuffs and the Chief went on my pants belt, and that was that.

Our uniformed duties consisted mostly of pre-flight screening of passengers in the boarding areas. Almost exactly the same task as is performed by the Homeland Security folks today, who also happen to wear white shirts and blue pants.

36 years ago, pre-flight screening was still a novelty. The weapon/bomb detection technology of the time magnetometers were pretty crude and every passenger got a thorough bag-search. Back in the early ‘70’s people were far more casual about the contents of their carry-on luggage than we are today. Also, recreational drugs were so pervasive that few to pains to hide their stash. As a result, we discovered a lot of marijuana, which meant arresting the poor sap, or sap-ess, and turning them over to the nearest San Mateo County Sheriff's deputy.

Having graduated from UC Berkeley just prior to becoming a Sky Marshal, I will tell you that I was conflicted. Though never much of a smoker – of tobacco or weed – I was nonetheless accustomed to virtually everyone of my generation more or less casually toking it. It was only later that many of these folks would graduate to cocaine, but then casual drug used seemed pretty benign…especially compared to the terror of in-flight hijacking, the prevention of which I thought was my principle job.

However, as a sworn Federal Officer, my responsibilities included the arrest of anyone caught breaking any of the statutes of the United States Code. Furthermore, allowing the breach of one of these statues in my presence without taking appropriate action was itself a breach of the law and potentially a cause for punishment. So, the Sky Marshals become front line narcotics officers - at least at airports.

At Berkeley, recreational drugs were practically a required extracurricular course. Because the advocates of “tune in, turn on and drop out” always seemed to me to have a creepy agenda that didn’t put much emphasis my personal welfare, I incurred a lot snide mocking for refusing to try the tabs, pills and puffs. But I could still recognize the stuff, which wasn’t true of many of my fellow Custom Security Officers, especially the older guys.

Since the Treasury Department didn’t train any of the CSO’s for our new found role in narcotics enforcement, many of the guys would detain airline passengers over what appeared to them to be suspicious substances or items, but which later proved to be over-the-counter meds, incense, Turkish tobacco, or oregano…really. Some people carry spices. These poor folks not only missed their flight they had to spend a few unpleasant hours in some drab room while Customs Inspectors trashed their luggage, before they ultimately received a perfunctory apology.

This kind of accidental harassment was not my cup of tea, which led to the following... One day as I walking down an airport corridor I heard raised voices at a boarding area. I came over to find a very upset woman squaring off against a CSO over a wrapped package that her non-English speaking father was trying to carrying on board his flight. The CSO had insisted on unwrapping the package. The old guy was beside himself with frustration. He’d bought the item as gift for the folks back home and he wanted to give it to them intact. The man’s American daughter was very close to being arrested for interfering with a Federal Officer. The package in question was clearly one of those wine samplers that they sell to tourists in Napa. Not to mention, that the profile for hijackers then, as well as now, didn't include 90-year-old, stooped men.

Anyone, except perhaps the particular CSO who was conducting the search, could tell this 90-year-old guy was no threat, whereas the daughter was definitely moving into Def-Con 4 territory. So I pulled her aside, calmed her down, and got permission to carefully unwrap the package if I could do so without causing any damage. Under the wrappings was one of those pre-made, snap open boxes with overlapping panels at the bottom. By carefully separating the two panels I could see the bottoms of two wine bottles. In 1972, carrying wine in gift-wrapped boxes was legal.

To placate the other CSO I had the box walked through the magnetometer to prove it wasn’t a bomb or gun, after which we let the old guy board the plane with his gift. I readily admit that this wasn’t great police procedure. On the other hand, no airplanes had been up until then, or for that matter have been since blown up or skyjacked by 90-year old guy armed with a pair of wine bottles. For those paranoid conspiracy addicts, I'll concede that he could have been a mule smuggling Molotov cocktails for a team of terrorists masquerading as nuns.

A few weeks later I got a nice letter from the guy’s daughter thanking me for my consideration. Shortly after that I resigned – much to the relief of the AIC.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2008

No comments: