The Federal Air Marshal Service has undergone a dazzling turnaround in recent years after being plagued by low morale, serious fatigue issues, whistleblowers exposing mismanagement, and management exaggerating to Congress about the number of flights marshals were covering.
But will this reinvigorated and highly specialized federal police force maintain its newly-found excellence after President Obama’s planned sudden “surge” of inexperienced marshals from other parts of the Department of Homeland Security?
ABC News reports that the federal officials say they are in a “race against time” to shift thousands of air marshals to overseas flights by Feb. 1 after intelligence reports and interviews with Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab suggested the possibility of over a dozen other planned suicide missions against U.S. aircraft.
Domestic flights characterized as high risk would then get new air marshals brought over from law enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service. Trained as air marshals after 9/11, one senior federal law enforcement agent told ABC the novices constitute “a kind of reserve air marshal force” that Obama will now call up.
But the air marshal service is such a new and unique force that simply sending in reinforcements might not work the way it would for, say, the army.
Former air marshal director Dana Brown, who was key in tackling the service’s serious problems, described in a 2006 memo to air marshals how they were not just another federal law enforcement agency.
The marshals went from being “a good, small business with approximately 50 employees or less” before 9/11 to “within six months becoming the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company with thousands of employees and a significantly expanded, global mission,” Brown said.
As the Transportation Security Administration’s Web site describes it, “Federal Air Marshals must operate independently without backup, and rank among those Federal law enforcement officers that hold the highest standard for handgun accuracy. They blend in with passengers and rely on their training, including investigative techniques, criminal terrorist behavior recognition, firearms proficiency, aircraft specific tactics, and close quarters self-defense measures to protect the flying public.”
Since the 2001 attacks, the marshals’ training regimen has been a frequent bone of contention, both within Congress and among executive branch officials. Before 9/11 a marshal got 12 weeks’ training, but afterward, the demand for getting lots of new marshals on the job fast reduced the time to under seven weeks for new recruits, with crash courses far shorter than that for veterans of other law enforcement agencies.
Yet the demands of serving as an air marshal are highly unusual, and burnout has tended to be widespread. High pressure coupled with hours of cramped boredom led to many agents quitting, often because the duties took a toll on their health. Moreover, marshals were resentful of inadequate efforts to protect their anonymity, including a wrongheaded dress code policy that made it difficult for them to blend in with passengers.
As former federal air marshal Robert MacLean, fired in 2006 for revealing the negative effects of funding cutbacks in the service, told CNN, “It was a well-paying job with enormous responsibility, yet extremely tedious and mundane.”
Even deskbound personnel, some of whom may be suffering from long-term fatigue, will be deployed onto flights, officials said.
“Administrative officials” were ordered to leave their offices and take aircraft assignments, ABC was told. “Most of us have not had a day off since the attempted bombing on Christmas,” a federal official was quoted as saying.
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