The head of the federal Air Marshal Service is being pressed to take action on issues directly affecting the security of its rank and file members, according to documents obtained by MSNBC.com. The issues are raised in a letter from an air marshal identified as the service’s national representative to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, an organization that intercedes and lobbies for federal agents that are forbidden from union representation. More than 800 air marshals have now joined the organization, MSNBC.com has learned.
The Oct. 28 letter from the FLEOA agency president to Thomas Quinn, director of the Air Marshal Service, raises longstanding concerns of rank-and-file air marshals such as dress codes and airline mandated boarding procedures that potentially compromise their undercover status.
Although the air marshals are supposed to operate covertly, the airlines insist on boarding procedures that place convenience over security, the letter says (MSNBC.com is not detailing those procedures because of security concerns). “This practice obviously puts the FAMs’ (federal air marshals’) cover status in jeopardy,” the letter says.
The air marshals operate as on-board undercover terrorist deterrents against 9/11 style hijackings. The nearly moribund service was revived and reorganized immediately after 9/11. Although the exact number of air marshals is classified, the agency acknowledges that “thousands” of air marshals fly every day on randomly chosen flights, domestic and international.
Air marshals have complained about the service’s dress code almost from the first day they began flying in the post-9/11 era. Air marshals interviewed by MSNBC.com say they are required to wear “business attire” even when flying to resort destinations and other areas in which such clothing makes them stand out. Air marshals have told MSNBC.com that they are routinely spotted in airports as federal agents simply because of their manner of dress.
The letter to Quinn notes this issue with chagrin: “[T]he embarrassment it causes the FAM to have people spot us, due to our manner of dress, and thank us for being there or give us the ‘thumbs-up’ sign as they walk by, it is potentially deadly to the FAM, crew and passengers,” because now their supposed covert status has been compromised.
A spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the agency that now houses the air marshal service, did not respond to a request for comment.
However, a General Accounting Office report released this week that specifically reviewed several mismanagement allegations within the air marshal service, including the dress code and airline boarding procedure issues, is at odds with the complaints raised in the letter to Quinn.
The airline boarding issue resulted in documented confrontations between airline employees and air marshals. The data analyzed “indicated a number of air marshals were accused of being abusive to airline personnel during the boarding procedures,” the GAO report says. In return, air marshals formally generated “mission incident reports” 159 times as a result of disagreements involving boarding procedures, the GAO says.
“A detailed review of the data pointed to differences in the service’s and the airlines procedures for boarding aircraft,” the GAO report says. A “mutually agreeable solution” for boarding procedures was negotiated with the airlines, the report says, to resolve the differences. But several air marshals contacted by MSNBC.com say that if there was any agreement made, no one contacted them for input. “We’re still being paraded in front of the passengers,” one air marshal told MSNBC.com. “The only ‘resolution’ in this whole matter was to make the process more convenient for the airlines,” the air marshal said.
No written rules
On the issue of dress codes, the GAO reported that the lack of written regulations when the service first ramped up led to confusion about appropriate attire. The policy, as it stands today, requires the air marshals to present a “professional image and blend in with their environment,” the report says. “For example, an air marshal might wear a business suit on a morning flight to New York and a sports shirt on an afternoon flight to Orlando,” the report says. The report says Quinn himself discussed the specifics of the dress code with many field offices and at the main training center “to ensure consistent application of the policy.”
Quinn and other air marshal officials have publicly derided previous criticism of the service as coming from a vocal minority of disgruntled air marshals. But the letter underscores that these complaints come from agents “who desire to stay with this agency through thick and thin.”
However, the letter acknowledges a growing rift between management and the rank and file. “Whether the service wants to acknowledge or not, there is an us vs. them mentality that has permeated this agency. This is derisive and creates animosity amongst Federal Air Marshals who only want to perform their mission without being compromised by nonsensical policies.”
Quinn hasn’t yet responded to the letter, according to John Amat, FLEOA 1st vice president and spokesman.
Federal law enforcement agents are forbidden from joining a union to help them press management for better working conditions. In lieu of a union, organizations such as FLEOA have formed, said Amat. The organization provides agents with legal protection if they have issues with their agency or off-duty issues. “We also lobby Congress” on behalf of federal agents, Amat said.
“We’re not here to be a union; we’re not to start saying ‘all these things are crazy and we need to do something about it,’” said Amat, who also works as a U.S. marshal. “If there’s an agency-wide issue” affecting our members, “then that’s something we’re going to look at and try and get it corrected,” he said.
However, the first step is to let the president of the FLEOA agency unit write a letter and bring the concerns formally to the agency officials, Amat said, “which is what you have going on now” with the air marshals.
The next step?
If the agency president feels stonewalled, the next step is to call in the FLEOA national board, Amat said. FLEOA would then intercede with the agency’s top officials to try and get some resolution. “But we don’t want to be confrontational,” Amat stresses, “We never pressure our agency presidents” to call in the board.
However, if the FLEOA board doesn’t get any satisfaction “then you have to go the political route,” Amat said. That entails putting the issue before influential members of Congress and pressing for a hearing.
“But you never want it to go that way,” Amat said, “because then it gets ugly.”