Air marshals under review following inspector general’s investigation

The Federal Air Marshal Service is reviewing the backgrounds of thousands of secret agents after the Homeland Security Department's inspector general exposed hundreds of cases of misconduct.

"We're going to examine them to make sure they meet law enforcement thresholds," FAMS spokesman Dave Adams told Government Executive Wednesday. "If they do not meet these thresholds, we will take appropriate action -- up to and including dismissal."

Officers who safeguard the skies from terrorists have lied on job applications, slept on duty, worked under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and lost their weapons, according to DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin.

In a report made public Aug. 27, Ervin accused the Federal Air Marshal Service of being too lenient with agents who misbehave and of failing to identify applicants with unsavory pasts. "Many…were granted access to classified information after displaying questionable judgment, irresponsibility and emotionally unstable behavior," Ervin wrote.

The report included a written response from Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary of Border and Transportation Security, who disagreed with its key conclusions.

Thousands of air marshals were rushed into service after Sept. 11, 2001, to prevent hijackings and terrorist incidents on U.S. civilian aircraft. The force now consists of trained law enforcement officers who carry firearms and try to blend in with ordinary airline passengers on domestic and international flights the service deems high risk.

In three years, the service has grown from a single office with fewer than three dozen officers into a major organization with multiple field offices nationwide with an undisclosed number of air marshals. They rely on classified information to carry out their missions.

The inspector general's report exposed deficiencies in vetting and disciplining air marshals. It says a review of FAMS personnel records revealed 753 documented cases of misconduct in the eight months from February to October 2002. In many instances, the offenders were suspended with pay.

Ervin contended they would have been fired for such behavior if they were airport screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration. "Since air marshals are weapon-carrying law enforcement officers, they can and should be held to a standard of conduct at least as high as that of screeners," he wrote.

In response, Hutchinson said the number and gravity of infractions were smaller than the report suggests -- only 717 cases in the 22 months from June 2002 to March 2004, and many of those were for little more than tardiness for work or complaints of rudeness from airline employees. "In cases where termination was appropriate, the FAMS acted swiftly and decisively," Hutchinson noted.

Ervin's investigation extended beyond active federal air marshals. He also looked at a portion of the 504 applications FAMS reviewed when disciplinary problems arose in 2003. FAMS showed Ervin 161 whose applications were approved for top secret security clearances during pre-hiring evaluations despite having financial problems, disciplinary issues and criminal histories.

The investigation also turned up 104 air marshals who chalked up 155 separate cases of misconduct on their previous jobs at the Bureau of Prisons. The offenses included security breaches, sleeping on duty, verbal and physical abuse, an inappropriate relationship with an inmate's wife, and misuse of government property and credit cards.

Ervin blamed the missteps on FAMS, two DHS agencies -- TSA and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency -- and the Office of Personnel Management. He contended that credentialing officers do not thoroughly investigate the backgrounds of prospective air marshals and recommended that hiring policies be changed to require that all available personnel, security and conduct files are checked.

In his written response, Hutchinson argued that reviewing all the available information for every applicant would be too expensive. He suggested that FAMS instead rely on references from current and past employers to weed out unsuitable applicants.

Ultimately, none of the 161 questionable applicants were hired, according to the FAMS spokesman. "It's important to note TSA had already cleared these people for top secret clearance as a pool of prospective candidates," Adams says. "We had nothing to do with it." He says the service began reviewing the background investigations of all active air marshals before the inspector general's report came out.

In addition to condemning conduct and disciplinary policies, Ervin also found fault with the training and fitness requirements for air marshals. The inspector general's report points out delays in training, inconsistencies in marksmanship courses and lapses in pistol recertification.

The report also notes that FAMS has changed hands three times in three years -- first from the Federal Aviation Administration to TSA within the Transportation Department in November 2001, then into the Homeland Security Department under TSA in March 2003, and finally within DHS from TSA to ICE. The air marshals joined ICE on Nov. 2, 2003, adding about 5,000 ICE special agents to the force. That transfer heightened Ervin's concerns about the problems revealed in his report.

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