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Air marshal program in disarray (Long Article)


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  • Air marshal program in disarray (Long Article)

    Air marshal program in disarray, insiders say Dozens of top agents have quit the service
    By Blake Morrison

    For years, the government touted federal air marshals as the best of the best -- an ''elite corps'' of undercover officers trained to stop hijackings on commercial flights.

    But today, after rushing to hire thousands of new marshals, the program is so beset with problems that sources say at least 80 marshals have quit, and other marshals say they are considering a class-action lawsuit over working conditions that they fear put travelers at risk.

    Documents obtained by USA TODAY and interviews with more than a dozen current and former marshals from around the nation suggest many have grown disillusioned with a program that one says has become ''like security-guard training for the mall.''

    Hiring standards for marshals added since Sept. 11 have been lowered dramatically, sources say. No longer must applicants pass a difficult marksmanship course that used to be the make-or-break test for the program. In addition, many new hires were given guns and badges and put aboard flights before extensive background checks were completed.

    The program has struggled to provide ammunition for shooting practice at some of its more than 20 regional offices, sources say. Despite the undercover nature of the work, officials have implemented a dress code that marshals worry identifies them to terrorists. And scheduling has been haphazard: Though some marshals have not flown for weeks at a time, sources say others are working 12- to 16-hour days and are falling asleep or getting sick aboard flights.

    ''This used to be an elite, great group. This used to be the baddest people you could find -- war heroes,'' says one marshal who joined the program just after the terrorist attacks. ''Now they've turned this into a laughingstock.''

    At least three incidents involving the conduct of individual marshals are under investigation by federal authorities.

    In one incident last month, a marshal was removed from a flight in Washington after smelling of alcohol. The head of the air marshal program confirms at least two cases in which marshals accidentally discharged their weapons, one in a hotel room in Las Vegas. And sources say one marshal was suspended after he left his gun in a lavatory aboard a United Airlines flight from Washington to Las Vegas in December. A passenger discovered the weapon.

    By law, the marshals -- all with top-secret security clearances -- are not allowed to speak publicly about the program. All requested anonymity and say they have been told they will be fired or prosecuted for talking to the news media. Based on a presidential order first issued in 1979, they cannot form a union, either. That's why some of the marshals say they're considering contacting lawyers. They say they're frustrated that managers ignore their concerns, and they say they have little hope that the organization will improve.

    Officials with the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) downplay the concerns. They say any organization that has grown as quickly as the air marshal division is bound to have some problems. Although the precise number of marshals is classified, sources say about 6,000 have been hired since Sept. 11. Before the terrorist attacks, fewer than 50 marshals flew, and only on international routes.

    Tom Quinn, the head of the program, disputes those figures and the number of marshals who have resigned. ''I'm not going to share the number, but it's significantly less'' than 80, he says. The marshals with complaints, Quinn says, represent ''a small number of disgruntled individuals who are total amateurs.''

    ''I'm very pleased with the way the program is going so far. . . . We've gotten it right,'' he says.

    'It's not growing pains'

    That's not how some marshals see it. They say they were lured to the program with promises of promotions and four-day workweeks to make up for the rigors of travel and days away from their families. Now, they say they've been misled or lied to, and they worry that new rules put them and travelers in harm's way.

    ''A lot of people were drawn to this agency because it was a fresh agency,'' says one manager involved in the hiring process. ''Now it's spoiled to the point that it's rotten. They tell us to bear with it, that it's growing pains. It's not growing pains. It's a disease.''

    After Sept. 11, the air marshal program became especially appealing to hundreds of law enforcement officers who guarded the nation's borders, monuments and federal buildings. Promises of better pay enticed many applicants, who left jobs with federal law enforcement agencies and local police departments.

    The typical marshal earns about $52,000 a year, officials say -- at least $2,000 to $5,000 more than a Border Patrol agent.

    ''The people I see staying are one of two types: people who were on the border working in the heat for 60 hours a week, and the other are local cops who are seeing another $18,000 to $20,000 a year in salary,'' says the marshal who joined the program just after Sept. 11.

    But even some of those marshals have come to regret their decisions, says the president of the union representing border patrol agents.

    ''We've had over 700 people go over there, and we hear from a fair number of those people -- people who have left (the air marshals),'' says T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council. Bonner says the former agents he talks with say ''they made a mistake'' by becoming air marshals.

    'Real issues with morale'

    ''The folks were lured over and were told they'd be flying three days a week with a day of training. Now they're flying five days a week and rarely train,'' Bonner says. ''They never in a million years thought they'd be taken advantage of the way they're being taken advantage of.''

    Documents obtained by USA TODAY, including e-mails, minutes from meetings and standard operating procedures for the division, underscore their complaints. One memo from a June 18 teleconference of regional managers notes ''real issues with morale in the ranks'' of those applying for leadership positions in the program.

    Among the concerns:

    * A marksmanship test that simulates conditions a marshal might face aboard a jet was eliminated as a means of qualifying for the program, apparently to get more marshals on more flights quickly, sources say. A manager and two sources within the TSA say the difficult shooting course was cut from qualification tests after a high number of applicants began failing what had once been the program's critical requirement. Program officials insist the shooting standards for marshals are among the highest for law enforcement organizations.

    * Regular training opportunities, such as time on the shooting range, are often precluded by the expanded flight schedules, marshals say. Even obtaining bullets for shooting practice has proven difficult.

    Quinn denies any office ever has struggled to provide ammunition to marshals. ''It's never been true,'' he says. But one memo obtained by USA TODAY documents the problem last March: ''The question keeps coming up and believe me I feel your pain,'' says an e-mail to marshals from a manager in one regional office. ''We are getting bullets shortly. . . . You can shoot on your own time and buy bullets with your own money however.''

    * Although they work undercover, marshals at some regional offices have been ordered to adhere to a dress code that requires them to wear ''conservative male or female business attire'' during most of their trips, documents show. Without special permission, they cannot dress more casually.

    Quinn says working marshals reviewed the dress code before it was issued, and good marshals ''would clearly understand, respect and appreciate'' the policy. He says marshals who provided details of the dress code to USA TODAY ''are putting us all at risk.''

    Do dress codes threaten cover?

    But marshals say making them look and dress alike is what threatens their cover. ''This is really dangerous,'' says one marshal, who left the Justice Department for the air marshal program five months ago. ''We are so obvious, the terrorists don't need to bring guns on the planes anymore. They just need to gang up on us and take our guns.''

    * New hires were given badges and guns and put aboard flights before extensive background checks necessary for national security clearances were completed. Quinn says that, in order to hire marshals quickly, the new hires were given waivers while the more extensive background checks were underway. ''Would I prefer it another way? Certainly,'' he says.

    So would some marshals. ''If someone slips through the cracks, how do you not know they're not a terrorist?'' says one marshal who received a waiver. ''You've already put them on a plane.''

    * Work schedules are disorganized. Schedules reviewed by USA TODAY show marshals often fly with different partners each day, even though they were told during training that developing rapport with a partner was crucial. Many end up flying more than 10 hours a day. ''It's ridiculous,'' says the marshal from the Justice Department. ''Guys are complaining about headaches and vertigo and dizziness. We're falling asleep. We're nodding off.''

    And though one memo from a manager's teleconference says the agency is ''being judged on how many flights we can cover,'' more than a dozen marshals in each of two offices were not scheduled for weeks at a time, sources say.

    ''In May, for 3 weeks, they forgot about me,'' says one marshal. ''And not just me. There had to be 15 guys in the office they forgot about. We sat in the office watching kung fu movies.''

    The marshal says many colleagues, cynical about the division's failure to offer them training, jokingly considered the Bruce Lee movies ''our close-quarters training.'' When the marshals repeatedly called the scheduling center in Atlantic City to try to get on flights, schedulers said, ''Don't worry about it. You're getting paid,'' the marshal recalls.

    Charge 'totally erroneous'

    Quinn denies the marshal's account. ''Totally erroneous,'' he says. ''There was no office with federal air marshals sitting there watching kung fu movies for a month.''

    Other marshals say they routinely work more than 50 hours a week but, because of a government pay structure for law enforcement officers, never earn overtime.

    Instead, based on a policy called ''law enforcement availability pay,'' they are paid for 50 hours of straight time each week even if they work more than that. Quinn says schedulers take into consideration whether marshals have worked long weeks and try to schedule them for less time in subsequent weeks.

    But one manager says if marshals report more than 50 hours, time sheets are changed to reflect only the 50 hours. ''I do it on a weekly basis,'' the manager says. ''I'm having to white 'em out.''

    When he speaks with marshals at regional offices, Quinn says he stresses two points: ''Professionals embrace change. Amateurs cling to the past and what somebody may have said to them along the way.''

    But for some marshals, what they were told when they applied affected their decision to join the program.

    In an Aug. 1 letter of resignation obtained by USA TODAY, one former marshal wrote of frustrations stemming from ''the lies that were fed to myself, and most of my colleagues.'' The letter details concerns about scheduling, pay and promotions. The marshal who wrote it would not comment on the letter, but he accepted a position outside the division ''because I can trust the people and organization that I will be working for,'' he wrote.

    The new job, he wrote, pays ''$11,000 less'' than his air marshal salary

  • #2
    Im not one to beleive new articles much.

    So, just looking at the facts- the number of people leaving the agency it seems to be a bit excessive.

    Putting that aside, it appears that due to the number of people leaving, escpecially the veterans,it seems that a change may be needed in the management structure.

    According to the statements made by the head cheese, it sounds like he is in denial about the fact that good people are leaving.

    As with any organization, when the career people get fed up and leave, there are usaully some serious problems that ethier get whitewashed by management or they fail to get addressed at all.

    According to Quinn, it sounds like he is at war with his employees. Perhaps he dosent understand that his employees can make him look very good, or they can make him look like an incompetent buffoon. Unfortunatley, some people dont understand that fact untill its too late.

    As with any organization, lowering standards to get more people to qualify is NOT the right rock. All is does is diminish the overall quality of the service.

    If any "cop" ever needed good shooting skills, I would think that an Air Marshal would be very high on the list.
    "The American People will never knowingly adopt Socialism. Under the name of "liberalism" they will adopt every segment of the socialist program,until one day America will be a socialist nation without knowing how it happened."

    Norman Thomas


    • #3
      I posted an article with a link to CNN.com on the War on Terrorism page regarding a couple of incidents with Air Marshals on planes, as well as their take on how they are being treated. It is just another nail in the coffin of a security lockdown where, where we say we will ensure the highest possible levels of security....we just can't deliver.
      Never, Never, Never Give Up!
      Sir Winston Churchill


      • #4
        Sounds like growing pains to me. TSA is brand new and prior to 9/11 I would guess there were probably less than a hundred air marshals at the FAA. Now they have a thousand or more marshals? How could you create a pracitally new federal agency and not expect problems. I think guys are disappointed after all the hype about their new agency and now they're finding the grass wasn't any greener (is it ever?).

        With the type of hours they are working I think they should be able to get overtime like the Secret Service does. That LE availability pay garbage for feds ought to be illegal under the FLSA.
        If you see me running try to keep up!


        • #5
          Some of them are just complaining way to much. The Air Marshals were told that the average work week was going to be 50 hours. Now they are complaining. The numbers leaving the agecy are not quit that high. USA today does not know what they are talking about.
          Fed. Officer


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