ICE tightens oversight of air marshals

A special advisory board is being created for the Federal Air Marshal Service with orders to "immediately address" ongoing disputes and problems, particularly relating to hiring policies and dress codes, Government Executive has learned.

Supporters say the board is critically needed because FAMS Director Thomas Quinn has not been able to internally resolve policy disputes that have strained relations between management and rank-and-file marshals. The Air Marshal Service places undercover agents on planes and became part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in the Homeland Security Department almost two years ago.

"As we go into the second year, ICE will need to take additional steps toward the effective integration of the FAMS," ICE Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia wrote in a Jan. 26 memo obtained by Government Executive. "The advisory board will provide information and recommendations on key FAMS policy and operational issues facing the agency."

Garcia said he is directing the board to "immediately address several issues of concern surrounding the air marshal mission," such as hiring, dress codes, the FAMS role in airport security, career advancement for marshals and the use of technology.

Some view the creation of the board as Garcia's way of intervening to improve oversight, integration and conflict resolution within FAMS.

Spokesmen for ICE and FAMS say the advisory board will improve overall integration, but is not intended to supercede Quinn's authority.

"It's an initiative to review organizational issues in the furtherance of the integration of FAMS within ICE, and I wouldn't read anything further into it," FAMS spokesman Dave Adams said.

ICE spokesman Russ Knocke said the creation of the board does not represent a lack of confidence in Quinn. He said the board can only make recommendations.

"There are a lot of policies and organizational issues that deserve a closer look, and that's why the ICE leadership has created this advisory board," Knocke said.

John Adler, national first vice president for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, praised the creation of the board, saying Quinn "has taken a blind ear and eye to the concerns of his air marshals." The association, which represents about 1,400 air marshals, has called for Quinn's resignation.

"I'm really happy to see that Mike Garcia has taken a proactive role in trying to get these problems addressed," Adler said.

One contentious issue has been the dress code. The association argues that it is overly strict and makes it easy to identify marshals, essentially placing agents and passengers at greater risk. FAMS, however, says the dress code is appropriate for a professional workforce.

The creation of such a board is rare at ICE. FAMS is one of five divisions within the bureau. Only one other division-the Office of Investigations-has an advisory board.

According to Garcia's memo, the new advisory board will be chaired by ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary John Clark. It will include: Rick Mercier, Clark's senior adviser; Ed Cook, senior legal adviser to Garcia; and Robert Byers, FAMS deputy director. It will also include two FAMS field senior executives: Felix Jimenez from Westchester County, N.Y., and Jack Shea from Boston. Quinn is not on the board.

Garcia said a senior representative from the Homeland Security Department's Border and Transportation Security directorate also might be asked to participate occasionally.

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