Friday, April 30, 2010

$200 Million Per Arrest

This post goes hand in hand with mine from Wednesday.  Seems that the US Air Marshal program isn’t exactly a resounding success story. In fact, as Bruce Schneier points out in his monthly newsletter on 15 April, air marshals are being arrested faster than air marshals are making arrests.

From a speech by Tennessee Congressman John Duncan in 2009, here:

And listen to this paragraph from a front-page story in the USA Today last November: “Since 9/11, more than three dozen Federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.''

We now have approximately 4,000 in the Federal Air Marshals Service, yet they have made an average of just 4.2 arrests a year since 2001. This comes out to an average of about one arrest a year per 1,000 employees.

Now, let me make that clear. Their thousands of employees are not making one arrest per year each. They are averaging slightly over four arrests each year by the entire agency. In other words, we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest. Let me repeat that: we are spending approximately $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.”

Or we could just say, "Sh*t happens, we can't defend everyone and everything 100% of the time."  Let's not instiute a cure that's worse than the underlying problem we are trying to solve.


  1. Is it the Air Marshals fault that most people behave themselves on airplanes, and that either the FBI or local airport police take most arrests upon arrival. I thought that the Air Marshal service was to counter any attempted hijacking.

  2. Brian, thanks for your comment, and point well taken--law enforcement on the ground might well be doing all the arresting rather than the air marshal personnel. Plus it's hard to gauge the value of deterrence.

    It's just that the War on Terror has taken on a life of its own and in some (perhaps many?) cases become an end rather than a means. Many programs may look and sound good but let's see the analysis rather than just assume it's money well spent. The AM program seemed to me to fit the model of a program that we ought to examine from a risk/cost/benefit standpoint.