Efforts to boost air marshal service fall short, GAO finds

Nearly four years after the expansion of the Federal Air Marshal Service, efforts to increase the number of agents available to assist during heightened threat situations are floundering, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.

The government increased the number of air marshals flying on U.S. domestic flights after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. FAMS became part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003 and was placed within the bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At the time, the department said ICE agents could be trained to serve as air marshals in order to augment FAMS during periods of heightened threat. DHS also said that putting the marshals under ICE was intended to provide them with additional career opportunities through ground-based assignments, such as nonflying supervisory positions.

But GAO concluded that DHS failed to meet these goals in the nearly two years that FAMS was part of the bureau.

"[The department] made limited progress in achieving its stated objectives to develop a surge capacity through cross-training ICE agents and to enhance federal air marshals' career opportunities," the report (GAO-06-203) stated.

The report noted that ICE suspended its cross-training in October 2004 in response to congressional concerns that the effort was an ineffective use of resources and training. Specifically, the House Appropriations Committee suggested that the effort be discontinued. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced in July that FAMS would be transferred from ICE to the Transportation Security Administration, where it had resided after the 9/11 attacks but before DHS was created. The transfer back to TSA was officially completed last month.

But it remains unclear how the move will achieve the desired surge capacity and broaden career opportunities for air marshals, GAO said. The auditors recommended that the department develop an "overall strategy with implementation goals and a timeline to build momentum and show progress, as well as a communication strategy to share expectations and report related progress."

DHS agreed with GAO's recommendations and said it is taking the necessary steps.

The report also found that FAMS has an inadequate policy for recording incidents reported by air marshals.

"Without a means for ensuring that all incidents are recorded, and absent written criteria that defines when and how mission reports are to be completed, FAMS cannot provide reasonable assurance that it is aware of the full extent of incidents that federal air marshals encounter," GAO said.

In response to the report, FAMS issued a written directive that establishes policies and procedures for reporting and managing incidents. GAO said the directive appears to be adequate.

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