Growing pains follow air marshals to new federal home

The federal air marshals program shifted to a new agency this week, but faces several key management and organizational challenges as it expands.

On Tuesday, oversight of the Federal Air Marshal Service officially transferred from the Transportation Security Administration to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge first announced the transfer in September.

"This is the right move at the right time for the right reasons," Ridge said. "ICE offers the air marshal service multiple investigative resources, such as better coordination with other law enforcement agencies and broader training opportunities. And the air marshals bring unique law enforcement and air security resources to ICE."

The air marshals service has exponentially expanded from a program with fewer than 50 marshals and a budget of $4.4 million before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to include thousands of air guards and a budget of $545 million today, according to a new General Accounting Office report (GAO-04-242).

Although the air marshals service is developing policies and procedures to support its expanded mission and workforce, it has to overcome several hurdles to complete the transition process, the report said.

"The service is likely to face challenges in implementing changes resulting from its mergers into DHS and ICE, including changes to its roles, responsibilities and training and to its procedures for coordinating with TSA's security organizations, as well as administrative changes," according to the report.

ICE itself already faces numerous challenges in merging its immigration and customs employees, fully defining its mission and resolving administrative problems.

Dave Adams, spokesman for the air marshals program, said the transfer to ICE will increase security by combining the skills and resources of air marshals with immigration and customs officials into a unified organization.

Adams said the merger will provide a surge capacity for the air marshal service because up to 5,500 immigration and customs agents will be trained in air marshal tactics. Also, the merger gives air marshals more career options with other law enforcement agencies, he added.

Adams acknowledged the air marshal program faces challenges outlined in the GAO report, such as a lack of information for effective monitoring and oversight of its growing workforce. But he said the deficiencies uncovered by GAO are being resolved.

"The public should feel very safe that the aviation industry is being protected with the federal air marshals every day," Adams said.

The exact number of air marshals is classified, but Adams said the program is continuing to hire to meet a threshold of marshals set by Congress. Attrition rates for the program are on par with other agencies, but maintaining a full workforce has been difficult because of marshals leaving for jobs with other organizations, problems with background checks and the removal of some marshals as a result of disciplinary actions, Adams said.

GAO recommended that the service develop an automated method to track the hours that marshals work to monitor the effects of flying on employees' ability to perform their jobs. GAO also recommended that the service monitor employee attitudes about the program, and track the reasons why marshals choose to leave the program.

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