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In the Midst of a Firestorm - Jeffrey Denning

Several weeks ago I received an email from an American soldier serving in Iraq. Jeffrey Denning's time was winding down and he'd been searching Blogland for other LDS blogs. He found mine and I'm glad he did. I dropped by his blog, did some reading and was very impressed so I contacted him back.

The bio on his blog reads the following:

I write for the Aviation Security Community for a major newspaper on line. (See the link on the left hand side.) I've worked as a private security specialist for the U.S.-led 'Roadmap to Mideast Peace' in Israel and Palestine, I serve on the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) Just War Theory Project, and I've worked as a SWAT team leader and a post-9/11 Federal Air Marshal. My master's degree is in Military Studies and terrorism, with a concentration in special operations, counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. I've lectured on topics from school shootings to identifying suicidal terrorists, and I just returned from a deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserves. I've been Scuba diving in the Red Sea and have eaten Belgium waffles in Brussels. I've trained with members of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and have led horseback riding trips in Colorado. I'm a professionally-trained driver, and I've gone free-fall skydiving for fun. Fun facts: I'm a FBI-trained crisis negotiator, I know American Sign Language, and my wife and I have nearly enough kids to start a basketball team!

He was interested in networking with other authors and we began a dialog which has emerged into the beginnings of a friendship. He's a public speaker, an author and a former Air Marshal, which is the center of the firestorm he now finds himself in.

CNN, the Washington Times and local newspapers, all have contacted and interviewed Denning. Why, you might ask, is this humble soldier suddenly in the spotlight? He received an email, in Iraq, from a former colleague at the Air Marshals Service. He forwarded it on to former and current Marshals and left it at that.

Upon returning home the TSA interrogated him and his family to find out where the email came from. (You can read the email here.) In CNN's interview, Denning was quoted as saying:

Nothing in the e-mail contained sensitive security information, Denning said, nor did it encourage anyone to disclose information that could endanger the public.
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"I was petrified," Denning said of Neiderer's phone call, explaining how he contacted CNN full of dismay that the TSA was harassing him and his family to find out which of his former colleagues had talked to the media.

"In Iraq, there were a lot of dangerous things, but never have I been so scared [as] when the federal government called me on my home phone and said I want to know about your personal e-mail account and what you have been sending."

TSA's Hawley refused repeated requests to be interviewed by CNN. Neiderer did not return repeated calls or e-mails. ("TSA Launches Leak Investigation" by Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston, CNN Special Investigation Unit, 14 July 2008)

So, what does this boil down to? The federal government was tracking all of Jeff's email correspondence. I guess they read mine too, but they can't have found much because our communiques revolved around writing.

Anyway, Jeff agreed to be interviewed about this whole mess, so settle in and let's hear it from the man himself:

Jeff, I ran across your blog after you emailed me from Iraq. You mentioned you were searching Blogland for clean and LDS blogs, can you tell me why you were searching for these blogs?

Years ago I began committing quotes to memory. I’ve memorized things from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Dr. Seuss. I especially have enjoyed studying the words of modern-day prophets and apostles. While preparing to give a talk to LDS service members in Iraq, I wanted to get a reference to a quote I recalled by a late Church leader. While Google-ing the quote to find the exact reference, I came across several LDS blogs and I began to search through them. Your blog really caught my attention.

It’s wonderful that we can share the gospel using the Internet, as Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged us to do recently. Millions can be blessed as a result. I know I have been blessed by learning of your testimony as well as the testimony of many others. I started my blog while in Iraq. I’ve had many friends of mine of many other faiths who’ve learned something about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by reading my blog, and I’m happy I can share with others what is most important to me.

Furthermore, some of the attention I’ve received recently from the CNN interview or from the Aviation Security blog I co-write for The Washington Times has prompted many more to read my personal blog.

Will you please tell us a little bit about your history before you headed to Iraq as an officer in the US Army Reserves, clearing bombs from the roadways?

After serving a full-time mission, I had a deep desire to work as a protection specialist – a bodyguard – for members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. My great-great-great grandfather, Elder Parley P. Pratt, was murdered while serving in the Holy Apostleship, as was – of course – Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and others. While the threat against Church leaders today isn’t the same as it was back then, there still are many people who’d harm them if given the chance.

When I visited the office of Church security shortly after my mission, I was turned away and lovingly encouraged to get some experience and education. Soon, I enlisted into the US Army Military Police Corps where I supervised a full-time SWAT team. On September 11th, 2001, I was working as a Dallas police officer. When I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center tower, I knew it was Middle Eastern terrorism. Feeling a need to do more to counter terrorism and terrorists, something of which I had a unique interest in long before 9/11, I applied to the Federal Air Marshal Service. While waiting to hear back I took a position protecting U.S. diplomats in Israel and Palestine with the U.S.-led ‘Roadmap to Mideast Peace.’
Living in Jerusalem and working as a security specialist I couldn’t help but think of the prophecies of the future. According to Revelation chapter 11, in the last days two prophets shall be slain in Jerusalem. I must admit, I’ve pondered that more than most.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to help Church security officials a couple times provide close protection security for both President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson. Of course, while all these life experiences are neat and wonderful, the most important is my family.

Before going to Iraq, you spent some years in the Federal Air Marshal Service, can you tell us why decided to take this job?

When the Department of Homeland Security finally contacted me and offered me a job as a Federal Air Marshal (FAM), I was living and working in Jerusalem. That particular experience was something I had dreamed about doing for many years.

Initially I turned down the job offer as an air marshal, but I had a deep impression afterwards that I needed to call them back and accept the position. One of the ways we can know it’s the Holy Ghost whispering to our hearts and minds to do something and not our own will is if the answer to our prayer is contrary to our personal desires. That was what I experienced in taking the job as a FAM. I’m convinced the Lord wanted me to take the position. And I didn’t ask why, I just did it. I received personal revelation and I acted on it. Without exception, every time I’ve followed that pattern, my life has been blessed as a result.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered a story about problems with the Federal Air Marshal Service. To my surprise, you were at the center of it but not for the reason people might think. Would you please tell us a little more about that?

First let me say it’s rather shocking to be the lead story of CNN.com all day long, and then be on Anderson Cooper 360. I never thought what I experienced would get so much attention, but then again, what happened to me was pretty outrageous.

While in Iraq I received an email from a colleague asking for any current or former FAMs willing to speak to CNN. After several years of agency mismanagement and senior managers unwilling to listen to the air marshals’ very real security concerns, whistleblowers decided to go public. Though I was very concerned, I didn’t ever go public nor did I ever ‘leak’ anything.

Subsequently I forwarded the email message I received from my personal email account. The week I arrived home from Iraq, an investigator from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) called me at home and asked about my personal email account and what I had been sending – and from whom. As you can probably imagine, when a special agent from the federal government calls your home asking about your private emails, it’s more than unnerving. Of course, at this point I hadn’t been a FAM in over a year, having left the nascent agency on good terms.

This email you received and forwarded, from Iraq, stirred up quite a fuss in many arenas. Why did you decide to go public with the contents of that email?

Silently, I stood by in disgust at the incredible corruption and mismanagement I had witnessed in the FAM Service, hoping things would change. They never did.

We were charged with stopping terrorists. As armed, undercover federal law enforcement officers on board airplanes, we knew more than anyone that the policies and protocols we were forced to abide by totally disabled us while enabling any would-be terrorists. We couldn’t do our job and the flying public was not safe. Inevitably, our national security was in jeopardy.

I often felt like Captain Moroni who wrote a scathing letter to the government leader, Pahoran, as recorded in The Book of Mormon. The military leader needed support and provisions, he wrote, or he and his men would rebel and fight against the government leaders. Fortunately, Pahoran listened and humbly replied.

When the government and the director of the FAM Service at the time wouldn’t change things, I felt I should go public and write about the failures in aviation security. I hoped that doing so would change things for the better. We’re still not where we should be. We’re not prepared to stop terrorists and flying is just a hassle. It shouldn’t be.

It’s impossible to describe the challenge of someone in my shoes to go public. I’ve been involved in a lot of specialized work and unique professional circles. Often those who go public get shunned, ostracized or blacklisted by those who were once their colleagues and brothers-in-arms. After many months of prayer and pondering, I decided to fast and pray about my decision to go public – this was before leaving the Federal Air Marshal Service in 2007. After consulting with a trusted friend and telling the Lord I would do His will, I attended the temple in a prayerful attitude. My answer was clear. I knew I must go public and not ask again.

So, when the opportunity presented itself to speak with CNN after this extraordinary incident, I didn’t hesitate. CNN was willing to expose the corruption and failures of aviation security that the federal government was charged to protect. And not only that, but they were willing to expose the great lengths that the TSA would go to in order to stop whistleblowers.

What has this done to your personal life, your family?

Well, I now have a few people who never want to speak with me again. Some have sent me hate mail. Some talk ill of me on line. But for the most part, people are supportive, including many air marshals or former air marshals who know what I know.

Recently I’ve thought of Columbus, the Wright Brothers, Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and others. Anyone who speaks up will have opposition. As Lehi taught, there will be opposition in all things. When we speak up – in my case, literally – there will be voices who oppose us. But I’m grateful for the experience. I feel more refined and strengthened as a man. I am more determined than ever to protect others and help keep innocent people safe from terrorism and all kinds of crime and trouble.

Of course, the kids thought it was neat to be on CNN. And my wife is simply wonderful. The government investigator initially contacted her while I was in Iraq. Of course, the whole ordeal made her uncomfortable and she continues to be reminded of it by a documentary film interview, the CNN interview, and so forth, but she’s been supportive of me during all of this. Prayer has been a blessing during our whole married life and this period is no different. As President Monson once said, “Prayer is the passport to peace.” (Thomas S. Monson, “In Harm’s Way,” Ensign, May 1998, 46.)

What is the key lesson you’d like everyone to learn from this?

A message especially to the youth: be strong, be courageous. Don’t do something just because it’s popular or faddish. On the corollary, if you should do something you know you should, dare to do it. Stand up for what is right. Do what’s right and you’ll have no need to fear. Be an example and a leader in all you do, because inevitably someone will be watching you – no pun at the government’s expense intended.

There are some major Constitutional rights being violated in this scenario, will you tell us a little about this?

I’m not going to attempt an interpretation of that here. I think a more important question is what are we – you and I – going to do to contribute to our communities and our beloved nation? One of the many things I love about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is our devotion to the U.S. Constitution. Joseph Smith taught that we should befriend it; that the Lord caused it to be established. He also prayed that the honorable and noble principles of the Constitution should be maintained forever. (See D&C 98:5-6; 101:77, 80; 109:54.)

The attack on our cherished values, particularly the attack on families, and other moral principles are growing. There is a bold movement to destroy religion and goodness. To that we should recall what John Adams, the second President of the United States and signer of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights stated. Said he, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Those are words to live by.

To borrow the words of another, there is great strength in a nation on its knees. That’s something we all felt and witnessed in the days following the 9/11 tragedy. We could all be a little better, a little kinder.

Will you please share with us some of your experiences as a Federal Air Marshal, flying the “friendly” skies in order to keep American safe?

Once Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, and his wife, walked on the plane I was covering. There I was sitting with a concealed pistol and I had just lied to the person sitting next to me about my job. The 9/11 hijackers looked like normal, everyday passengers prior to their deadly deed. Working undercover sometimes I had to lie. If I told the wrong person, or if a would-be terrorist overheard me, I would be attacked first. And, trust me, there are bad guys still probing the airlines and looking for weak links to attack.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see Elder Oaks. There he was – one of my heroes. Not only was he someone I respected as a person and a professional in jurisprudence, but I sustained him as a prophet, seer and revelator. I thought of the many years of preparation I had had since first going to Church security and asking to help protect these good men. I thought about the dichotomy of lying and how I justified it. Among the simplest of answers was that given by my dear friend and home teaching companion in Jerusalem, the first Patriarch to serve in the Holy Land since the Restoration of the gospel who was later called as the Alberta, Canada temple president, Brother Robert S. Patterson. He reassured that the Spirit would let me know when to divulge the clandestine nature of my job.

Further, as I curiously watched Elder Oaks, I wondered what he’d think of me if I had to violently counter-attack a person trying to take over the plane. I knew what he’d think from a legal perspective as a former attorney and judge. I knew the law well.

I knew what he’d think from an ecclesiastical standpoint. In fact, I recalled that he had at that point recently stated that, “[W]e believe the commandment [‘thou shalt not kill’] is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict.” (“The Dedication of a Lifetime,” CES Fireside for Young Adults, Oakland CA, May 1, 2005.) But what would he think as a man and a Church leader if I had to do those things that I had been trained to do?

It’s that psychological and spiritual aspect to being a modern-day warrior that has taken so many years to learn. That’s one of the reasons I’m eager to write a book for LDS service members and those in law enforcement or private security – or for those who are considering an occupation in such a field.

What last thoughts would you like to share with the readers of my blog, who happen to be amongst the best in the world?

I’ve had many special experiences over my lifetime. I’ve been supported and guided by Divine intervention. I’ve been protected from physical and spiritual harm. I’ve prayed for help to perform well in my work and I’ve been blessed as a result. Interesting, isn’t it? Yes, I feel the Lord wants me to be good at my profession even though it involves what has been described in The Book of Mormon as “the work of death.” But thankfully, I haven’t had to do that.

Finally, as a former Federal Air Marshal and a concerned private citizen, I am still eager to help keep our nation’s skies safe. That’s the reason I began writing an Aviation Security blog for The Washington Times community, found here.

And there ends the interview with Jeffrey Denning. Can I tell those reading my blog, this man is tremendous and I feel honored to know him. It takes great courage and strength to take a stance against such a powerful institution. Yes, there are those who have turned from him, but they are people of no consequence or character. For one does not abandon a patriot standing for truth, and that is what Jeffrey Denning is . . . it will be my great honor to assist him in getting his book published. For I have no doubt it will be a book which strikes at the heart of those trying to destroy this nation. If he has a 1/5 of the writing skill his ancestor, Parley P. Pratt, had, then we are in for a great treat.

Jeff, thank you for being as the Captain Moroni of our day. I, as an American, thank you for your service to our country and your stance in fighting for the continued freedom of the children of God.
In the Midst of a Firestorm - Jeffrey Denning In the Midst of a Firestorm - Jeffrey Denning Reviewed by Candace Salima on Wednesday, July 23, 2008 Rating: 5