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Should We End The Controversial Air Marshal Program?


There are now reportedly more than 3,000 U.S. Air Marshals riding commercial flights in the United States. They sit anonymously among passengers, ready to snap into action at the sign of any in-flight security breach. But most of them have rarely had to do that. The Air Marshal program has cost $9 billion over the past decade. Now it's come under fire in Congress about a month ago after allegations of mismanagement and misconduct. Congressman John Duncan of Tennessee was at one of those hearings. He joins us from his office. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN DUNCAN: Well, Scott, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Do we still need air marshals?

DUNCAN: No. I think it's the most needless, useless, wasteful program almost probably in the federal government, and that's - that's saying quite a bit.

SIMON: Is it possible that any number of hijackings or incidents in the air have been deterred because anyone who wants to take over an airplane has to consider that an air marshal might be aboard?

DUNCAN: Well, I guess you could say almost anything is possible. But I can tell you that I think the program has shown almost no effectiveness. I think at their height, they did four arrests one year. That was costing over $200 million per arrest. CNN had a story that said sleep-deprived, medicated, suicidal and armed federal air marshals in disarray. Years ago, another - a former member of Congress told me one time, he said we did everything we really needed to do when we locked the cockpit doors. That very inexpensive thing has probably done more for air security than anything else.

SIMON: I mean, it's tempting, and certainly we do it in the news business, to look at a figure like $9 billion and say, you know, figure out what that cost per arrest and everything. But I wonder, isn't it in a sense worth, I don't know, a billion dollars a year to the American people to have that deterrent aboard? Because as people in the program have pointed out, if something happens, there's no one else to call upon for help in an airliner.

DUNCAN: Well, you could justify almost anything on that basis. But I will tell you that on any cost-benefit analysis, this program does not hold muster. I can tell you also that while a billion dollars might not seem like much money in the whole federal government...

SIMON: Oh, no, it's a lot of money. Don't get me wrong...

DUNCAN: It's a lot...

SIMON: ...Yes.

DUNCAN: It's a lot of money to most people around the country.

SIMON: And congressman, you know, if - let me understand this, are you calling for the outright abolition of the program?

DUNCAN: Yes, I sure am. I just think there are so many better things that that money could be spent on - you know, cancer research, our schools. Almost anything you can think of I think would be better than what it's being spent on now - just for bored people to ride airplanes back and forth, back and forth and not really accomplish anything at all.

SIMON: Congressman John Duncan of Tennessee, thanks very much for being with us.

DUNCAN: Well, thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.