An Air Marshal's View of Flight 327

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For much of the past month a fight has been raging in news reports and over the Internet about the behavior of 14 male Middle Eastern passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit to Los Angeles. Were the men terrorists casing the plane for a possible attack, as freelance journalist Annie Jacobsen suspected in a long article about the incident? Or were they, as the men said and federal investigators later concluded, a Syrian band on their way to a gig?

Until now, news accounts have only featured government spokesmen or airline personnel who were not actually on the June 29 flight. But in an exclusive interview with TIME, the lead Federal Air Marshal who flew on Flight 327 tells what happened that day. "Bottom line," the FAM says, "there was never a time when my main partner or I felt there was an imminent threat to that airplane or the passengers."

The controversy began in mid-July, when posted an account of the incident written by Jacobsen, a passenger on Flight 327. She detailed what she said was odd behavior of the passengers (for instance, getting up several times during the flight, going to the bathroom often, congregating in the aisle) and described the increasing concern she and her husband felt. She said the flight attendants were also frightened, so much so that they seemed too scared to confront the men.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, the 14 men were interviewed by FBI agents and Federal Air Marshals, who determined the men were a Syrian band heading to play a casino in San Diego. After being checked through government databases, they were not charged with any crime or detained beyond questioning.

Jacobson continues to say that something very suspicious was going on. She's written two follow-up articles, and bloggers and mainstream media outlets have picked up the story.

This week, TIME conducted a detailed interview with the lead FAM on board Flight 327, one of the thousands of covert, armed government agents who patrol the skies. The man, who authorities did not allow to be identified by name, is 35 years old and worked previously for another federal law enforcement agency. In that job, he often dealt with foreign citizens.

The FAM, who says for security reasons cannot say exactly where he was sitting, was aware of the group of Middle Eastern men from the beginning of the flight. About 25 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant discreetly told the FAM that she thought the men were "acting suspiciously" and were congregating near one of the lavatories in the back of the plane. He alerted another marshal on the plane and also told the flight attendant to notify the captain. A short while later, the FAM asked the flight crew member to get physical descriptions of the men and their seat numbers.

He watched the men and saw nothing out of the ordinary. In a long, single aisle plane like the Boeing 757 that was carrying Flight 327, there are often many people standing or moving around. That was the case on this flight, says the FAM, who has flown hundreds of missions in his two and half years on the job. The FAM never saw — nor was he told — of any example of the men interfering with the flight crew (which is a federal crime). He never saw any activity that caused him to ask the pilots to turn on the seat belt sign (which he can request) and keep people in their seats. "Nothing my main partner or I saw on Flight 327 brought us anywhere near a conclusion that we considered breaking our cover or deploying as we've been trained. And we never came close to drawing our weapons."

There was, the marshal admits, one incident that did concern him: when one of the group came from the back of the plane forward to use the lavatory in First Class. The FAM timed the man, dressed in a green jumpsuit with Arabic writing on it; he stayed about ten minutes in the toilet. Immediately after the man returned to the back to the plane, the FAM searched the washroom and found nothing. In contrast to Jacobsen's version, the FAM said at no time did any people congregate near the First Class bathroom.

When the flight was an hour from landing in Los Angeles, the FAM informed his superiors and, as is standard procedure, suggested they meet the plane to interview the men. He told the flight attendant to ask the pilot to alert the authorities at Los Angeles International Airport. That was why the flight was met by federal agents and why the men were interviewed but then allowed to leave in time to make their concert. The FAM's take? "I understand why the passenger felt some anxiety about activity on Flight 327," he says. "But that kind of activity was unusual but not a security incident. There was never a threat to the plane."