Air marshals depart TSA, join law enforcement bureau

More than 5,000 law enforcement officials will soon be trained to serve as federal air marshals under a major reorganization at the Homeland Security Department.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced Tuesday that the federal air marshals program will move from the Transportation Security Administration to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"ICE offers the air marshal service multiple investigative resources, such as additional access to intelligence, better coordination with other law enforcement agencies, and broader training opportunities," said Michael Garcia, acting assistant secretary for the bureau.

The move had been anticipated for several weeks. Ridge wanted to consolidate law enforcement and investigative agencies into one unit. Some agency insiders also see it as a way to save the air marshals from an uncertain future at the budget-strapped TSA. Earlier this summer, reports leaked that TSA was considering scaling back the air marshals program because of budget constraints. That news caused an outcry on Capitol Hill and elsewhere within the department.

Sources within the department said that the air marshals themselves were pushing to be transferred. One principal reason is professional development. Many marshals want the opportunity to cross-train with other law enforcement agencies. They want the flexibility to be detailed to other missions, not just fly on planes. TSA will not reveal how many marshals are currently in the program.

On Tuesday, Ridge said ICE personnel would be trained as air marshals, adding more than 5,000 new officers to the marshal's ranks. "With this single move, we will be able to deploy more than 5,000 additional armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies when needed," he said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank.

The reorganization gives TSA the ability to add air marshals during peak travel times or as security intelligence dictates, according to agency spokesman Brian Turmail.

The air marshals will become another branch in ICE, according to Garrison Courtney, an agency spokesman. Officials have not decided which ICE personnel will undergo air marshal training, he said. Courtney minimized the training differences between marshals and ICE agents, noting that many marshals came from Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and that some ICE agents served as marshals after Sept. 11. The air marshal program was part of the Customs Service in the 1970's.

"We do have a significant number of ICE agents who could act as air marshals if they need to," he said.

The reorganization means ICE now has three law enforcement corps, each with their own training background and pay system. Customs agents are typically paid at the GS-13 level, while INS investigators are classified at the GS-12 level. Air marshals are paid under three broad pay bands, and can earn up to $80,800 in base pay, roughly equivalent to a GS-13, but about $11,000 more than an INS agent typically can make.

"We have to look at pay equality for all the parties," said Courtney. "That's one of the things they're already looking at it in DHS."

Some veteran INS agents were less than thrilled about the reorganization. "Nobody here is too happy about it because it means basically everybody will be a GS-13 except us," said one INS investigator. Agents also wondered how the agency would juggle air marshal deployments with its current investigative work.

TSA Administrator James Loy had fought to keep the marshals within the agency.

"I believe that they are [an] integral part of the system we have built for aviation security," Loy said in an interview with Government Executive last week, before the final decision was made. "I believe we optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of that system by holding onto all of the parts."

Nonetheless, Loy said he understands and appreciates the secretary's desire to consolidate like entities under one roof. He said TSA will become a "demanding customer" of the bureau.

"I want the ability to shift air marshals from flight A to flight B, if that is the right thing to do," Loy said. "I want the ability to influence their schedule."

Most of those details are still being worked out, according to TSA's Turmail. Courtney, the ICE spokesman, said the marshals would report directly to Garcia. The transfer will take place in October, at the beginning of the fiscal year.

In his speech, Ridge also announced that the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection will cross-train its inspection corps, so lead inspectors at ports of entry can handle the basic tasks of INS and Customs inspectors. The agency will still have inspectors who specialize in agriculture inspection, according to William Anthony, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. "If there is an agriculture issue, it'll be sent to them," he said.

Ridge said the department would work to present a "single face at the border" in January. But Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, questioned whether the move improves border operations. "It's unclear to me how having one person perform the jobs of three increases their abilities," she said Tuesday.

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