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Air marshals program hits turbulence

After 9/11 the federal air marshal program ramped up from 36 full-time officers to a classified number in the thousands. Immediacy was the watchword, and in the crunch to put armed marshals on the planes, critics say recruitment and retention efforts suffered.
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When terrorists slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, there were about 36 federal air marshals, mostly flying sensitive international routes. When the shock of the attacks wore off, federal aviation officials issued an urgent order for the creation of a corps of armed professional air marshals to ride shotgun on thousands of U.S. airline flights. Some 16 months later, however, the program is struggling - assailed by insiders and former marshals for lax management and hemorrhaging recruits frustrated by the slow pace of training and placement.

AN INVESTIGATION by found the program’s recruitment and retention processes in trouble, with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which runs the program, straining to maintain adequate staffing levels.

Sources familiar with an ongoing inspector general’s audit of the program confirm these accounts, though they are disputed by TSA officials.

“The [IG audit] is finding some problems with the way initial recruitment and training schedules were handled,” said a source familiar with the investigation. “If those problems aren’t adequately addressed, it could impact staffing capabilities down the road.”


Following 9/11, the air marshal program needed an immediate infusion of bodies and drew them, on a temporary basis, from nearly every federal law enforcement agency imaginable. In the meantime, the government put out its recruitment call. At the peak, the government was recruiting and training nearly 800 air marshals a month.

The scale of recruitment was dictated by the arithmetic of commercial aviation. There are about 25,000 commercial flights a day in the United States. Even if you factor in short shuttle flights and two-hour “hops” between an airline’s major hubs, putting two marshals on each flight — they are supposed to fly in tandem — would require a corps numbering many thousands, and support and logistics would tax even a well-established organization.

Of necessity, then, marshals cover only a small fraction of flights. How these flights are chosen is classified.

Sources say TSA had an initial recruitment target of 6,000, but that number was scaled back to around 4,000.

Reaching even that recruitment level is proving elusive, sources say, as disillusioned air marshals exit the program. Among the most frequent complaints: inadequate training, scheduling problems that force some marshals to fly solo instead of with a partner and unhappiness with the realities of a job portrayed to them as something more than an airborne security guard.

In a candid response to these complaints, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told reporters during a tour of the federal air marshal training center in Egg Harbor, N.J., last summer that urgency has caused some growing pains. “We had to ramp up very quickly,” he said. “In ramping up, given that seven-week training program, maybe we crunched it down to four weeks.”

Unlike a small business that can afford and indeed often learns from the halting three-steps-forward, two-steps-back rigors of the marketplace, homeland security can’t stand such missteps. And in an atmosphere where law enforcement agencies from the local to the federal level are experiencing increasing demands for personnel, the air marshal program has little room for growing pains.

The TSA insists that critics of the air marshal program are misguided and that it is thriving despite a small number of “vocal individuals” who choose to abandon the program, said Brian Turmail, an agency spokesman, adding that the program has only a 3 percent attrition rate, which is “significantly lower than most other law enforcement programs.”


When the TSA stopped taking applications in May 2002, some 197,000 people had already applied. That influx of paperwork apparently swamped the newly formed agency. Hundreds and possibly thousands of hopeful applicants have been left in paperwork limbo awaiting the processing of their applications, according to TSA personnel familiar with the process.

“Interesting. Interesting that that’s a story,” said Turmail, who dismissed those concerned when asked about the backlog. “I mean, I can’t think of the number of jobs I’m still waiting to hear back from that I applied for,” he quipped.

That response from TSA was cold comfort for one potential air marshal, a U.S. Border Patrol officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, who has been waiting since March of last year for final word on his application.

“I called and officially pulled my paperwork,” said the Border Patrol officer. “I told [the TSA] I have a baby on the way and I have to make plans,” the officer said. “I just got tired of the TSA telling me to ‘wait just a little while longer,’” he said. “I have to move forward, not tread water.”

Frustrations among the half-dozen former federal air marshals contacted by ranged from too much time away from family, having to fly too many hours without time off and abbreviated training schedules for lesser-experienced recruits.


Of the initial 197,000 applications received by TSA, some 120,000 applicants were deemed “tentatively eligible,” according to agency records.

The text of a voicemail hot line for potential air marshals, obtained by, gives applicants several options:

Request a copy of the results from the initial application processing.

Phone numbers for “tentatively eligible” applicants to call to find what they should expect next in the way of receiving an “assessment date.”

Numbers to call if an applicant has made it through the assessment process but hasn’t yet received an “offer call or status letter.”

The hot line also asks applicants who have made it through the assessment process but are still waiting for their security background checks to “please be patient,” noting that the process “can take up to six months to complete.”


The TSA’s air marshal program was the subject of a scathing USA Today report late last year that described indecision, inadequate training and conflicting mandates.

In the wake of those revelations, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., requested federal watchdog agencies the General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general to investigate the program’s hiring and recruitment processes, training, scheduling and management. The agencies have already surfaced some concerns in the early stages of their work.


The air marshal program suffered from the same sort of problems that any start-up business might expect, says a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who was among the first wave of law enforcement officers pressed into duty as an air marshal.

“A regional office in San Francisco was saying one thing, and the office in Houston or Miami or New York were all saying another,” the ATF agent says. “I don’t blame guys for being frustrated,” the ATF agent said, “but those frustrations should be secondary to the overall mission” of protecting the public.

Even if federal watchdogs find major failings in the TSA’s handling of the air marshal program, it’s not an indication that TSA can’t adequately perform its broader mandate under the rubric of homeland security, said Michael Scardaville, a Heritage Foundation security policy analyst.

The air marshals are “a new program,” Scardaville notes. “To expect people to get it 100 percent right on the first shot is asking quite a lot.”

The much more crucial question in Scardaville’s mind is how quickly TSA will respond in rectifying any of the shortcomings identified by the investigations.

Like so many of the nascent efforts of a homeland security policy still very much in flux, the question of how fast problems can be identified and corrected “hasn’t yet been answered,” Scardaville said.