Big companies and wealthy individuals normally don’t discuss the threats they receive, preferring to keep their security concerns private.
Aircraft owners are allowed to block flight information from public view. But hundreds of companies and prominent citizens have sent just such information to the federal government, some detailing their biggest security worries. The reported dangers range from chilling to seemingly trivial: al Qaeda terrorists; animal-rights extremists; deranged stalkers; depressed gamblers; gas-price malcontents and aggressive autograph-seekers.
The threat information was contained in letters sent in 2011 to the Federal Aviation Administration but not made public until now. The letter writers were stirred to action by a since shelved FAA plan to allow the public to have greater real time access to the flight paths of private aircrafts.
Because private aircrafts use the FAA’s air traffic control system, the agency said at the time, there had to be a strong reason why these federal records shouldn’t be publicly available on commercial flight tracking websites.
Plane owners still could block their flight plans from live tracking, the agency said, but only if they wrote the FAA a letter certifying they had a “valid security concern,” such as a “verifiable threat…of death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm.”
Major defense contractors, perhaps not surprisingly, were among those who wrote letters. Among the most alarming notes was one from Lockheed Martin Corp., LMT -0.03% which cited federal district court testimony by a confessed Islamic terrorist about a plot to assassinate its chief executive “in a retaliatory act meant to dissuade Lockheed Martin from producing drone weaponry” for the U.S. military.
Asked to comment, the company wouldn’t discuss specific threats, but said employee safety is “our No. 1 concern.”
By the initial August 2011 deadline, the FAA received nearly 500 security related concern letters. The Wall Street Journal obtained redacted copies of nearly all of those via a Freedom of Information Act request that was fulfilled after 18 months.
After a public outcry, Congress in late 2011 forced the FAA to reverse course and allow aircraft owners to block their flight information for any reason.
Today, more than 5,100 U.S. registered aircrafts have their flight information blocked from public view, according to an April 2013 list sent to commercial flight data vendors. That number at one point had dropped to fewer than 700 before Congress forced the policy reversal.
In a statement, the FAA said it asked for “limited information” from those seeking to block their flight data for security reasons, and granted all such requests if they contained the required information.
Smaller oil companies feared dangers closer to home. Among those cited by Marathon Petroleum Corp. MPC -0.09% were threats stemming from “anger about the price of gasoline.” Oxbow Group, an energy company run by billionaire William Koch, noted a “volatile” debate about global climate change and worries about “aggressive actions by individuals and special-interest groups deeply opposed to the continued use of carbon-based fuels.”
Chevron and Marathon had no additional comment. An Oxbow spokesman said the 2011 request was “prudent” given the subsequent attack early this year on an Algerian gas facility and threats the company has received from “domestic terrorist groups,” which he didn’t specify.
Penn National Gaming Inc., PENN -0.78% a regional casino operator, had revenue of nearly $3 billion last year, most of it money lost by gamblers. In its letter to the FAA, it seemed concerned that some of these people might be angry. Citing potential danger from “pathological,” often-depressed gamblers, the company said it tried to identify and help such people, but “we are not always successful.” It fretted that those losing big sums might blame the casino or casino personnel and exact “high-profile retribution.” Penn National had no additional comment.
The Cleveland Browns football team sent a five page submission, written by a former director of the U.S. Secret Service, that began with a history of security concerns related to the late Al Lerner, a businessman who bought the revived Cleveland franchise in 1998 and who, according to the letter, held “top secret” security clearance during the George W. Bush administration.
Mr. Lerner died almost nine years before the letter was written.
His son, Randy Lerner, who owned the team until last year and still owns Britain’s Aston Villa soccer club, also had been subjected to stalking and threats, according to the letter, which blamed fans who were “fanatics” or “disgruntled.”
Other major companies sent what amounted to form letters, certifying they qualified for the security exception, without providing threat details. This group included Emerson Electric Co., EMR -0.02% BNY Mellon and a subsidiary of News Corp NWSA -0.32% ., which publishes The Wall Street Journal. None of the companies commented.
A cloak-and-dagger air permeates a partly redacted letter from a New Jersey man, who sought to block the flight plans of his small piston engine Beechcraft. The man wrote that, as part of his work, he did something for “agencies of the U.S. government that cannot be identified here.” Whatever he does for the agencies also can’t be identified: The FAA blacked it out.
The man also said this sensitive work required him to take security precautions while traveling, such as “avoiding open exposure, dressing conservatively, etc.” to avoid being kidnapped “by those who might attempt to force information from me.”
Reached at his employer, the New Jersey man said: “This is something I’m not willing to talk about,” and then hung up the phone.