The head of the Transportation Security Administration Friday expressed complete confidence in the Federal Air Marshal Service and said he will let marshals speak freely to lawmakers.
"The air marshals are a critical part of the [Homeland Security] Department's capability. We are well staffed to cover the critical flights we need," TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said. "I feel highly confident -- as confident as anything that I've been exposed to in the government -- that this air marshal team is ready to go."
Controversy over the service was recently renewed when current and former marshals told CNN that less than 1 percent of commercial flights are being protected.
The air marshal service disputes the figure, but says the exact number is classified. Rank-and-file marshals have feuded with the service's leadership on and off since the service was expanded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A public battle was fought two years ago as air marshals clamored to relax their dress code. Responding to the recent flare-up, House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told Hawley this week she wants to meet with rank-and-file air marshals.
She said she wants Hawley to allow them to speak openly about their concerns. Hawley said Friday he would allow marshals to meet with lawmakers.
"Our folks are not shy," he said. "I think it is great that members of Congress [are] taking the time to talk to our [transportation security officers] or our air marshals."
Hawley said inaccurate estimates on how many flights are covered are either coming from former marshals or active marshals who are not aware of the actual statistics.
"If you got a former employee who's anonymous with a bag over his head guessing at the statistics, I would say [he] is not really credible," Hawley said.
He also defended the management of the service. "There has been a vast open-door policy that has really taken root in the last couple of years. There are people who were bitter from whatever experience somewhere along the line who maybe reflect an older picture." Hawley defended the practice of allowing airport screeners -- formerly called transportation security officers -- to become air marshals.
Some air marshals criticize the practice, arguing that TSOs do not have the necessary law enforcement background. According to TSA, 36 screeners have become air marshals.
"Trust me, you do not want to mess with those guys," Hawley said. "Anybody who messes with a flight having a TSO on it who is now an air marshal will be dead." Hawley added that the air marshal service has a 6 percent attrition rate, which he said is average for a law enforcement agency.