By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com

Air marshals have arrested 28 people, discharged their weapons three times, used non-lethal force 16 times and had their cover blown 113 times since the program was revamped in the aftermath of 9/11. The figures come from a report released this week and provide a rare peek into the workings of the undercover service.

The report by the General Accounting Office, a watchdog investigative arm of Congress, reviewed management and hiring practices as well as job performance and separation data of the Air Marshal Service. Overall, the report says the service is addressing many of the problems that plagued it early on as it took calculated shortcuts to meet demanding congressionally mandated deadlines for putting thousands of new air marshals on airplanes. At the same time, the report notes that challenges still lay ahead for the agency in the areas of data collection, scheduling, workforce retention and its integration with a new parent organization, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In its review of the Air Marshal Service, the GAO publishes for the first time data gathered from incident reports filed by air marshals during the course of their work. There are 2,083 incidents reported scattered across 20 broad categories. However, the report cautions that some of the incidents may have been recorded multiple times. For example, a “suspicious person incident might also have been reported as a drunk and disorderly incident,” the report says.

The “suspicious person” category is the largest, with 444 incidents (21.3 percent) reported. The report provides no details for category criteria. “Suspicious activities by person” is the next highest category with 394 incidents reported (18.9 percent). The third largest category — 381 incidents — involves “issues with airport or airline personnel” in which an air marshal has had a disagreement of some kind over such things as assigned seating or boarding procedures, check-in procedures or flight crew briefings.

The air marshals have made a dozen searches, reported four incidents of people tampering with the plane or equipment and noted 49 security breaches.

None of the three incidents of a firearm being discharged happened inside an aircraft, said David Adams, a spokesman for the Air Marshal Service. Two of the incidents happened in hotel rooms and one was at the residence of an air marshal, Adams said. “The appropriate disciplinary action was taken in each case,” Adams said.

Some good, some bad
Between October 2001 and July 2003, there were 600 reports of “misconduct” by air marshals recorded in over 40 categories, the report says. Those figures aren’t specifically broken out in the report. However, among the categories with the largest recorded cases were “insubordination or failure to follow orders,” “loss of government property” and “abuse of government credit cards.” The last category stemmed, in part, from confusion about what types of charges were or weren’t allowed, the report says.

And as MSNBC.com previously reported, at least one air marshal was fired for brandishing his weapon in the course of a dispute over a parking spot in an airport parking lot.

Despite some media reports that a “flood” of air marshals had resigned, the GAO report found that since the service’s initial hiring thrust in September 2001 through July 2003, about 10 percent of the workforce has left. The exact number of air marshals is classified.

The service has no real good idea of why someone chooses to leave because it doesn’t have a good system to record such data, the GAO said. That could be a problem because the service needs to have high retention rates to “maintain continued deployment of experienced personnel.” The report notes that it costs $40,275 to recruit, train and deploy an air marshal.

Only 4 percent of air marshals are women, the report says. Close to 74 percent are white, followed by Hispanics (13 percent) and African-Americans (9.4). The service also is relatively young in age, with 34.5 percent being between the ages of 31 and 35. The next largest age category, 36 to 40, makes up 30 percent of the workforce.

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