I began thinking about Steve Elson and Cathal “Irish” Flynn almost from the time I saw the planes explode through the World Trade Center towers. Both Elson and Flynn are retired Navy SEALs, and I knew them while we were on active duty.
I first met Flynn when he relieved me after I’d served a seven-month tour in Vietnam as officer in charge of three SEAL platoons. Some three months later he was on his way to the Philippines and then the Strand as commanding officer of Underwater Demolition Team Twelve, his abbreviated combat time in the Rung Sat Special Zone finished, his ticket punched. Flynn was a tall, almost gaunt man with a scholarly air: the sort of fellow with whom you could discuss realpolitik or monetary theory.
Elson had served a full combat tour in the Rung Sat as a SEAL corpsman and returned to work for me when I was executive officer of SEAL Team Two in Little Creek, Virginia. You wouldn’t discuss realpolitik with Elson, but you sure as hell would rather have him than Flynn walk point on a hairy mission.
Despite his relative lack of combat experience, Flynn parlayed — in my opinion — his empire-building skills, adroitness as a staff officer, and ability to cultivate contacts among senior officers into a series of promotions that ended with flag rank. He retired as the head of the Naval Intelligence Service and became head of security at the Federal Aviation Administration in 1993 — in part, I suspected, because of his carefully cultivated friendship with another former SEAL, Senator Bob Kerrey.
to list specific examples of employee abuse he claimed supported his opinion.
Elson also ended up at the FAA but on the other end of the food chain: he was a security agent toiling in the trenches at Houston’s international airport during the latter years of Flynn’s tenure as head of security. I wouldn’t have known of this connection if it hadn’t been for an e-mail that crossed my computer screen about a year ago. The message had been shotgunned bye-mail to several retired SEALs. In it, Steve Elson took Flynn to the woodshed, as they say.
“Two weeks ago,” the message began, “Mr. Cathal Flynn retired as head of FAA ‘security’ to his Coronado home with a big, fat retirement check.” Elson went on to deliver such licks as “Flynn joined the FAA cult and proved anathema to security...Essentially, there is no security in civil aviation today. There is deterrence based on the false appearance of security...Flynn and his staff punish agents for doing what they took an oath to do.”
Elson cited an FAA “vulnerability assessment report” at a major airport in late 1998 to show how far security had plummeted, and he quoted from that report: “The assessment team managed to break through different security screenings repeatedly in many different areas. Team members were caught only 4 times during 450 attempts to penetrate different security areas. They managed to get by passenger X-ray screening repeatedly. . .having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle...an automatic MAC machine gun under their jackets on their backs.”
According to Elson, not long after the report was filed Flynn painted a wildly inaccurate portrait of airport security in testimony before a Senate committee; “Flynn reported a 96% success rate in preventing unauthorized access to restricted areas.... I believe it fair to say Flynn lied [to Congress]. Flynn.. .looked the other way [when managers abused employees]. FAA security personnel no longer take job initiative because they are afraid of repercussions.” Elson went on
Elson also told the SEALs why he wrote the e-mail. “Because Flynn has not only disgraced himself, he has disgraced our community.... FAA [security agents| absolutely hate his guts for the damage he has done and the destruction of morale and work incentive. I can tell you many agents don’t have a very high opinion of SEAL Teams because of Flynn, a ’SEAL Admiral.’ When asked if Flynn was a SEAL, I just say, ’Naw, he was just an admin guy.’ Flynn’s performance makes this an easily acceptable statement.”
Whew, I thought. I hope Elson can back this up because — despite the obvious hyperbole — he was making very serious allegations. I sent my own e-mail, pointed this out, and asked what Flynn had done to him personally. Elson, in my experience, had never been one to engage in character assassination or otherwise stir up shit in a community that had several such practitioners.
Elson was characteristically forthright in his reply. “I can back up what I said with tons of stuff. The Government Accounting Office asked me to give them a three-hour brief. Ended up ten hours over two days. I have hand-delivered over 600 pages of documentation to Congress on the crap that goes on in FAA.
“I’ve written hundreds of papers that I send up to D.C. In most, I challenged/dared anyone I had slandered to sue me. So far, no takers. Perhaps Flynn will. I hope so. That would give me the perfect opportunity to get more documentation into the media."
Well, I thought, if you’ve got the goods on Irish Flynn, why hasn’t Congress or his boss, the secretary of transportation, done something about your complaints? Why has Irish returned to Coronado with a “fat FAA retirement check”? (Elson would later tell me he believed Congress was as bad as Flynn for not doing something about the failings of security.)
Over the next several weeks I exchanged e-mails with Elson to learn if he were an embittered Don Quixote or if what he said about Flynn and security had some basis. We were all to learn too well how that security would fail, although there are those such as Flynn who maintain nothing could have been done to prevent suicidal terrorists, who were also pilots, from hijacking those planes with knives and box cutters. That reality, they say, was simply unimaginable.
As for Flynn, Elson maintained in his e-mails and our phone conversations that “The most important issue is not Flynn: it’s the terrible state of civil aviation security. It’s just a matter of time before we have another catastrophic terrorist attack like Pan Am 103.” I pressed Elson on why he raged so against Flynn. “When Flynn took over FAA security,” Elson said,“I stayed away from him because I didn’t want to appear as if I were taking advantage of our SEAL ties. I’d known the guy when we served together on the staff at the Special Operations Command in Tampa and I thought highly of him. He once helped me out of a tight spot that could have cost me my career. When other FAA agents asked me what he was like, I told them he was a little different but that he’d do the job.
“Then in December ’98 I got fed up with all the security failures. I and other agents had reported to our superiors, who sat on their hands and did nothing. In fact, I got a disciplinary letter placed in my file by the Houston manager because I’d gone out on my own time during holidays— when terrorists are likely to strike because of the crowds — and ran my own assessment study. Discovered and documented many instances of violations...but I wasn’t out to put anyone on report. Whenever I saw something out of whack, I told the screeners what was wrong and how they could fix it. I used to give out cookies to people while I talked to them about security. No one ever complained that I knew of. But the manager didn’t like the bad news and wrote me up. Same thing happened to other agents.
“I finally contacted Flynn and told him we were spending a fortune on security and getting nothing back but garbage. I gave him specifics and he promised to investigate. Sent his assistant, Kay Payne, to three airports I complained of, where agents had filed grievances against abusive managers, and had discovered horrendous lapses in security. Payne submitted a report to Flynn, who promptly buried it.
“I continued to send memos, document the serious problems. Worked for two years within the system trying unsuccessfully to change things. For my efforts I got interviewed by the FBI and turned in to the US Marshals. That was fun. I won.” I asked him to tell me more about the FBI business. He said he suspected Flynn may have sent the FBI after him. “I’d quit the FAA in protest, but I kept sending letters and documents to anyone who might care and some I was sure didn’t. Flynn said I’d been threatening people. So here comes the FBI to interview me. I passed with flying colors, and that was the end of that.”
Several months after his first e-mail, Elson e-mailed me a copy of a letter he wrote to the secretary of transportation at the time, Rodney Slater, about what Elson perceived as Flynn’s “misuse of FBI assets in an intimidation attempt.” Here’s a sampling of what Elson told Slater: “I have tried to work.. .within the system and chain of command to address the many problems...in the FAA. The FAA response to my letters, e-mails, and memos varied. First they called me a ‘hero’ and ‘one of the agency’s most dedicated agents.’ Then they tried to mollify me but did so in a condescending and insulting manner. Then they (including you) tried to ignore me. Then they tried to discredit me. Now they have made a futile attempt to intimidate me by involving the FBI. Let me make two things very clear — I will not be intimidated by Flynns involving the FBI. And I don’t quit! The flying public’s life is unnecessarily threatened. I can’t quit.”
I told Elson this was pretty strong stuff and suggested maybe his zeal and passion could work against him and diminish his credibility. “Others,” he said, “have told me the same. These are FAA people who appreciate my efforts but think I’m nuts for what I write and the volume.”
But two important media outlets have considered Elson sufficiently credible — at least about FAA security — to feature him in exposes of that security. Jim Morris used a quote from an interview with Elson to title his February 2001 article in U.S. News & World Report: “Since Pan Am 103, a ’facade of security.’” Morris also focused his lead paragraph on Elson: “A serrated hunting knife tucked in his pants, Steve Elson strolled through a screening station at New Orleans International Airport without setting off the alarm. He cleared checkpoints on two other concourses, drawing nary a glance. Had he held a ticket, the former Federal Aviation Administration special agent could have boarded any flight armed with a deadly weapon. Dressed, in his words, 'like a dirt bag,’ Elson later went snooping behind counters in the Delta Air Lines gate area in plain view of passengers and employees. He was searching for unused baggage tags, which he sends to members of Congress to make a point: that a terrorist could easily grab such a tag and attach it to a suitcase rigged with a bomb. Left near a jetway door, the bag would likely be loaded onto an aircraft."
In commenting on the U.S. News article, Elson told me: “Funny thing is, I didn’t even realize I had the knife in my pants until later. It simply does not trip the mags. Also, I told Jim that New Orleans was one of the better airports around. Jim flew down to my home in Metairie, Louisiana, and spent three days interviewing me for the story.”
Elson said he’d also been interviewed by Fox TV for a special on security at an airport far worse than the one in New Orleans: Logan International in Boston. Elson gave me a tape of the program during a visit he made to San Diego last May.
Before viewing the tape, I asked Elson what he thought of Lindbergh Field, where he’d just landed and, of course, wandered around checking things out dressed more like a tourist than a dirtbag.
“The San Diego airport looked pretty good from what I observed going through. I could have picked up Frontier Airline bag tags and, with some effort, picked up keys from Alaska and United. Would have been risky but doable. What I really look for at airports are the basics, just the basics. No use worrying about the esoteric or James Bond crap until these folks can manage the very simple, basic things.
“If you decide to do some testing, it should be a lot like the video of what Fox did at Logan. Testing which deals with everyday events at airports. I have only heard that testing is not legal. I think they're afraid of the media unless there’s a very clear violation. For instance, on the Fox video the picture of Deborah (the Fox reporter) opening the jetway door. Originally she started to go through the door — definitely a local and federal violation. That had to be stopped — just open the door.
“Doors at San Diego will be tougher than at Logan. In Terminal Two, the airport got smart and spent some good money on some good technology. Door combos, for example, are on scramble pads. Good idea. However, there are still many ways to beat the system.”
As we watched the Fox video I was struck by how insightful, dedicated, and reasonable Elson appeared. I would later see the same kind of person when he appeared on 60 Minutes five days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He was not the man some of his more hotly worded e-mails suggested.
Despite my low opinion of how Irish Flynn made admiral and may have gotten his job at the Federal Aviation Administration, I nevertheless realized how strident Steve Elson could be. I wasn’t going to accept his accusations at face value no matter how reasonable he appeared on TV. I contacted Irish Flynn six days after the terrorist attacks and he immediately agreed to a phone interview.
We talked for nearly an hour. Before our conversation I’d sent him an e-mail setting forth Elson’s major complaints. He answered them point by point in a careful, measured style that I recalled from many years ago when he was chief of staff for Naval Special Warfare Group One at the Coronado Amphib Base.
We began with Elson’s allegation that Flynn had lied to Congress. “I don’t recall the numbers of the assessment study Steve’s referring to, but I know they were high.” Flynn said he believed the successful attempts may have been through the first line of defense — the screeners — but fewer attempts were successful on actually boarding the planes. Still, he recognized the security situation exposed by the testers was “pretty damn bad.”
He said he had testified in open and closed sessions before a congressional committee that the FAA had a very high rate of success in keeping testers from boarding the aircraft. He didn't recall the exact rate of failure to stop the testers, but it could have been 4 percent, and that, he said, was still “disquieting.”
Elson’s manager in Houston had put a letter of caution in his file because Elson insisted on working holidays and weekends despite being told to stop. The reason had to do with personnel policy over which Flynn said he had no control. The FAA had agents who volunteered to work without pay on their days off, worked the days, and then changed their minds about no pay. These agents would then demand overtime pay and the FAA might have to compensate them. Flynn added he knew “Steve would never do that,” but FAA policy — not Flynn’s — wouldn’t allow anyone to volunteer to work free no matter how well intentioned.
I asked why in the world couldn’t an administrative procedure be set up to protect against those who would abuse the system and at the same time allow dedicated agents to work on their own time? Flynn said he tried to find a way, but it just couldn’t be done. When Elson wouldn’t accept the reality, he got his letter. (Later, in an e-mail, Flynn gave examples of Elson’s behavior that suggested Elson was obstreperous, intolerant, puritanical, and unbalanced, and at one point Flynn told me, “Steve is nuts.” Nevertheless, he also praised Elson as “a doer...generous and thoughtful.. .a great host” and compassionate.)
I was particularly interested in Flynn’s response to Elson’s charge that Flynn may have sent the FBI after him. “First of all, I don’t recall sending the FBI after Steve. After he left the FAA he began writing all these letters.. .to my FAA boss, to the transportation secretary, to Congress... he even wrote the president. I got copies of some of these letters but not all.
“In one letter Steve said either he or someone else — it wasn’t clear who — had daydreams about ’putting the Houston FAA manager in the crosshairs.' I believed the manager’s life might be in danger and that I owed it to her to take protective action. I turned the matter over to our internal affairs people. They may have contacted the FBI. I don’t know.”
Flynn acknowledged that the FAA had “pockets” of morale problems, and I asked him how he dealt with those pockets. He said he would talk to the regional managers and convene discussion groups among agents to improve communication with management. I asked if he’d ever relieved a manager because of poor morale among the troops and he said no. (On 20 September, the Dallas Morning News reported that a recent attitude survey showed many field agents lacked confidence in managers at headquarters and in their own regions.)
Flynn also said he’d never buried a report from his assistant about Elson’s charges. He said he didn’t even remember a written report and his assistant may have simply told him of her findings. She said the charges could not be substantiated.
As for Elson’s claim that he’d retired with a “fat retirement check,” Flynn said his monthly retirement check from the FAA amounted to less than $700. He added that when he took the job he had to give up his entire military pension.
That brought me to my suspicion that Bob Kerrey had helped him secure the FAA position. "Bob Kerrey,” he said,“had absolutely nothing to do with that. I was first offered the job in 1990 by someone I’d worked for while on active duty who thought I was the person for the job. I turned it down.
“I did ask Kerrey for assistance once, but it was for a completely different appointment in the government. I didn’t get the position. When I was again offered the FAA job in 1993, I accepted. Bob Kerrey had nothing to do with the offer.”
Flynn turned to Elson’s e-mail accusing him of giving SEALs a bad name: “I’ve seen a copy of that memo and of course dispute it. In fact, I had another SEAL in FAA call me after the memo appeared to assure me he was in no way associated with it and deplored its contents. Another FAA employee who is an attorney overseas called for the same reason."
I then asked Flynn about a subject that had troubled me even before the horror of 11 September: the regulation that allowed knives with blades less than four inches on planes.
"Who,” I began, “makes the regulations about what passengers may or may not carry onboard?”
“The head of FAA security.”
“Did you authorize knives onboard with blades less than four inches when you were in charge?” “Yes.”
Flynn said that before the events of 11 September security was geared toward what experience had taught: hijackers normally wanted something in return for freeing the passengers. Perhaps it was money, freedom for imprisoned comrades, publicity for a cause, or a combination of such goals. The hijackers would have to land at some point to close the deal. The pilot’s job was to placate the hijackers and get on the ground as soon as safely possible.
Once on the ground, security forces would be in a position to retake the plane. The hijackers of course knew of this possibility and would be heavily armed. They counted on survivability, not suicide. They wouldn’t think of taking over a plane with only a four-inch knife. Such idiocy would invite an immediate assault by security once they learned the hijackers had nothing more formidable than a Swiss Army knife.
Flynn also pointed out that such a knife was carried by many innocent passengers to help them while away the time on long flights. Flynn gave the example of women using the scissors on the knife when crocheting. He also mentioned the usefulness of the knife to clean and trim fingernails. Flynn’s successor seems to have shared this benign view of the short-bladed knife: he kept Flynn’s regulation in force.
Flynn talked about how he had improvised security during his seven years at the FAA. “I was not,” he emphasized, “‘anathema’ to security.” He assured me statistics would back him up. He said he simply could not have been expected to foresee the chain of events that has plunged us into national crisis.
“But,” I said, “if Hollywood could imagine terrorists hijacking a plane and turning it into a guided missile, why couldn’t FAA? Didn’t you engage in ‘what if’ sessions? Brainstorm contingencies?
Flynn said the FAA conducted such sessions, but again, nobody envisioned the extraordinary facts of these terrible events: maniacal terrorists armed only with knives and box cutters, who could fly an airplane, and who were prepared to die. (He would later tell me in an e-mail that previous attacks by Bin Laden’s men had been “deadly determined, but planned for survival and escape.” The terrorist Yousef, for example, escaped after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and escaped again after his attack on Philippine Airlines.)
Throughout our conversation I sensed a man who was—for all his calm, measured responses—in great anguish. I felt for him and was glad I wasn’t in his place.
September 11. All day and into the night I watch TV, searching for hard facts about the unspeakable horror through a numbing video stream of pontificating politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, talking heads vowing vengeance, self-important news anchors acting as ringmasters, and—worst of all—old men, their jowls a-quiver, speaking with Delphic certainty, telling us we must steel ourselves to send oh-so-many young men to their doom if good is to conquer evil. I think of my son and his SEAL mates who are even now on their way to the Middle East.
I find the facts I seek. They gleam like diamonds through the murk: The planes that struck the Twin Towers had been hijacked by terrorists after the planes had taken off from Logan International Airport; the terrorists were armed with knives they had smuggled aboard.