By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2003 12:59:34 PM ET 2003-12-09T17:59:34

The government is bolstering the ranks of its airborne undercover federal air marshal program, ending more than a yearlong hiring freeze. The move comes just ahead of the program’s transfer out of the Transportation Security Administration and into Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A “hard freeze” for air marshals went into effect more than a year ago and advanced training programs were canceled earlier this year as the program dealt with a rapidly dwindling budget.

In July, air marshals were pulled from cross-country and other flights that required overnight stays in an effort to save money for associated travel expenses. That order was rescinded less than 24 hours after an MSNBC.com story reported on the policy, drawing congressional criticism and demands that air marshals be returned to those flights.

The next air marshal training classes begin Oct. 28 in Artesia, N.M., with graduates from those initial six-week courses reporting to either the New York or Chicago field offices, TSA Spokesman Brian Doyle confirmed. In addition, those accepting the new jobs are being asked to sign a three- or five-year “non-transfer waiver,” Doyle said.

Air-marshal prospects air complaints
Several prospective air marshals contacted MSNBC.com to complain about being offered only two choices of duty stations after languishing on the so-called air marshal “ready pool” for a year or more. This ready pool consists of applicants who have passed all the air marshal initial interviews and tests, as well as security clearance background investigations.

“What is really dumbfounding to me is, they have understaffed offices on the West Coast,” a West Coast-based federal law enforcement officer in the ready pool told MSNBC.com. “You would think it would make sense to take a guy like me [who lives in the West] and assign him to Nevada or Seattle, or even California, but instead, it is likely I will be sent to an East Coast office.”

New York and Chicago “are two critically staffed offices,” and “based on resource needs, these two offices are being taken care of initially,” TSA’s Doyle said. Air marshal hiring will continue, Doyle said, with an aim of staffing other offices.

Glitter gone?
When the air marshal program first began its hiring push in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 200,000 people applied. The position represented the prestige and pride that came with serving in the undercover corps.

But a series of missteps by the program quickly knocked the gloss from its initial shine among government law enforcement agencies. Shortened training regimes that rushed air marshals into the pipeline were criticized. Incomplete background investigations left significant numbers of air marshals flying without final security clearances. And what some called an internal “witch hunt” by air marshal officials trying to ferret out rank-and-file members who had leaked information to the media led to a congressional call for an inspector general investigation.

Air marshal officials have repeatedly brushed aside any internal criticism as coming from a disgruntled, vocal minority within the corps.

There are some indications, however, that those once ready to jump at any offer to become an air marshal are rethinking their positions.

Quick turnabout
Another prospective air marshal told MSNBC.com that “a mere 20 days ago I was told that there 500 people ahead of me” on the ready pool list. “As a matter of fact, there were so many people ahead of me, that [a person in the air marshal human relations office] told me that it really didn’t look good for me ‘unless a lot of people turned down the job.’”

However, TSA’s Doyle said he couldn’t comment on whether a lot of people were turning down job offers. “Someone who has been waiting a year for a possible opening with the [air marshal program] may well decide to turn that opportunity down,” Doyle said. That said, however, the air marshal program is “truly trying to find and hire and retain the best candidates for positions possible,” Doyle said, which means some people may be passed over or not contacted right away, despite being on the waiting list.

Beginning Nov. 1, the air marshals will officially become part of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. In return, some 5,000 armed agents within ICE will be cross-trained at some point so that, should the need arise, they can be “surged” into the air marshal corps to pull temporary duty as airborne agents.

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