By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 3/4/2004 6:00:59 PM ET 2004-03-04T23:00:59

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is being asked to investigate allegations that the safety of thousands of air marshals and the public at large was compromised last month during the airing of an exclusive two-part series by NBC News that examined the federal air marshal program.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in a letter on Wednesday, asked Ridge to “review” the “possibility of unwarranted security disclosures made by Federal Air Marshal executives” when they allowed NBC News unprecedented access to videotape little-known facets of the air marshal program.  “In their attempt to bolster public confidence, they ultimately may have put air travel passengers and individual Federal Air Marshals at greater risk,” wrote Maloney, who chairs the House Democratic Task Force on Homeland Security.  Air marshal officials, “have taken the position that providing the world with a step-by-step narrative of how Federal Air Marshals covertly pre-board commercial flights and make threat assessments is somehow going to improve public confidence,” Maloney writes.

“Everything we did was with their approval,” said Bob Hager, the NBC News correspondent who did the air marshal segment.  Air marshal officials “were with us every step of the way,” Hager said.

Federal air marshals are armed undercover officers who ride shotgun on commercial airlines as a deterrent to hijackings or other terrorist events. They train for and are authorized to use deadly force. The program was revived in the aftermath of 9/11, its ranks swelling from 33 to several thousand. The exact number of the air marshal corps remains classified. 

Officers association complaints
Officials from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents 21,000 law enforcement professionals, including nearly 1,000 air marshals, also have voiced their concern about the NBC program, first to air marshal program officials and then to members of Congress.  Air marshal officials “provided the enemy with their play-book and then challenged them to sack their quarterback,” said John Adler, FLEOA’s national secretary, in a letter to members of Congress. 

Air marshals speaking with MSNBC.com also voiced several concerns about the NBC segment, claiming that the news program showed in too explicit detail how they moved through airport security, how they showed their credentials and to whom; how they dressed; how they boarded an airplane; and special devices they use to communicate.

“The more info they put out about how to spot [a federal air marshal] may give the public and the administration warm fuzzies,” said a federal air marshal who requested anonymity.  “The only problem is it also gives the bad guys enough to go on so they, too, can figure out what flights air marshals are not on,” he said.

And it wasn't only the rank and file that had problems with the level of detail included in the NBC program.  Several field supervisors also believe parts of the program's operation were compromised, MSNBC.com has learned.

“There should be a more judicious way of highlighting the program without providing so many details of the operation,” said an air marshal field supervisor who requested anonymity.  “The program was quite bothersome to me” and to several other supervisors he has spoken to, he said.

Maloney also alleges that air marshal officials are “apparently contradicting the media sanctions they imposed” on their own employees. These officials “need to continue to support their employees,” Maloney writes, “not focus their attention on broadcasting information that should remain private.”

By the book
None of the charges are valid, said David Adams, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the division of the Department of Homeland Security that houses the air marshal program.

“I dismiss the accusations that the piece was a violation of security measures,” Adams said.  “We worked very closely with NBC on this piece,” Adams said.  “When the proposal was made by NBC to me, I vetted it through the highest levels of Homeland Security,” he said.  “The department approved the two-part series with NBC.  I assured them that no sensitive security details would be released.”

Adams also said the program in no way compromised either the safety of the public or the air marshals.  “I feel that we owe the public a snapshot of a very important agency and our mission,” he said.   “I feel that by giving a snapshot to the general public it also gave the agency an opportunity to tell the general public about our mission; it also gives us an opportunity to show would-be terrorists and others that the air marshals are a significant deterrent to hijackings in the aviation domain.”

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