Rep. Chip Cravaack: Armed pilots our last line of defense

AWR Hawkins, Ph.D. | Conservative Writer

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In February, I wrote an article for The Daily Caller on the Obama administration’s attempts to cut the Federal Flight Deck Officers program (FFDO). The article drew heavily on an interview I did with Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN).

The FFDO program was instituted by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and was created to be a last line of defense for airplanes facing an attempted terrorist takeover. Through it, pilots who pass the extensive background check, meet the marksmanship demands and survive the physical rigors of testing — including hand-to-hand combat — earn the right to carry a handgun in the cockpit: a handgun they are trained to use to protect that cockpit should a terrorist breach its door.

On April 5, I did a follow-up interview with Rep. Cravaack to see where the FFDO program now stands. The news was good and bad. The good part was that Rep. Cravaack is determined to find a way to fund the program, whether Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano admits the value of the program or not. The bad news is that, as of right now, Secretary Napolitano (and the Obama administration as a whole) appears bound and determined to gut the funding for the program, thus allowing it to quietly die on the vine.

AWR: Where do we stand on the issue of funding for FFDO?

Rep. Cravaack: Right now, barring a sudden turn in our favor by the administration, I plan to actually add a floor amendment to the appropriations bill — Homeland Security Appropriations — and request the funding. Because I so strongly believe that this program is the last line of defense for our traveling public. Remember, it only costs about $15 a flight to have an FFD officer in the cockpit for a given flight.

We have a $25 million budget at present: that budget covers facilities for training, the extensive psychological and physical backgrounds checks, other parts of the screening process and other aspects of the program that are confidential. But I want to double the amount going to the program, so we can increase the number of armed pilots exponentially. With all respect to Sec. Napolitano, she wants to cut the $25 million in half, which will effectively end the program.

AWR: Can you explain how cutting the $25 million in half would end the program?

Rep. Cravaack: We already have a backlog for background investigations for FFD officers because the funding isn’t there. We are literally turning down pilots every day because we can’t do the background checks required to get them into the program. Cut the already deficient funding by half, and it’s simply not realistic to expect the program to remain viable.

I’d like to point out that the increased funding for the program will not come at a greater expense to taxpayers. We worked to find a way to use overages from the TSA and other areas to pay for FFDO program because it is the most efficient program we have in protecting the traveling public.

AWR: When Secretary Napolitano says the TSA is moving toward risk-based options, is it not fair to say she’s moving toward more reactionary options? In other words, the FFDO program is somewhat pre-emptive: the armed pilots are there whether we’re sure a would-be terrorist is there or not. But it seems that Secretary Napolitano’s approach is putting us two steps behind instead of two steps ahead.

Is that a sensible analogy?

Rep. Cravaack: That’s a perfect analogy. The FFDO program is a safety net. It is a last-line-of-defense safety net.

And again, with all respect to Secretary Napolitano, she’s focusing on risk-based analysis on passengers that are coming through the screening process. I understand that, but we’ve seen on a few occasions where people have been able to get close enough to the airplane to put things on the airplane and take things off of it: people who avoided screening. So there are gaps.

With armed pilots we can protect ourselves against those gaps.

FFDOs defend over 100,000 flight segments per month and 1.5 million flight segments per year. A would-be terrorist on an airplane has to wonder if there’s a Federal Air Marshall on board. And even if there’s not, they have to wonder if the pilot is armed. By taking the FFDOs out of the equation, we simply boast the terrorists’ capabilities of being able to take over an aircraft.

AWR Hawkins is a conservative columnist who has written extensively on political issues for HumanEvents.com, Pajamas Media, Townhall.com, and Andrew Breitbart’s BigPeace.com, BigHollywood.com, BigGovernment.com, and BigJournalism.com. He holds a Ph.D. in U.S. military history from Texas Tech University, and was a visiting fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in the summer of 2010. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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