The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security is being asked to look into allegations that an NBC News segment highlighting the federal air marshal program breached security, MSNBC.com has learned.
In a letter set to be mailed Tuesday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asks Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin to review “the possibility of unwarranted security disclosures” made by federal air marshal officials as a result of having approved the “Nightly News” segment. “My concern is that in an attempt to bolster public confidence, the safety of air travel passengers and individual federal air marshals may be been placed at greater risk,” Maloney says.
Similar issues were raised with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge last month when some air marshals, particularly those represented by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), expressed concerns that too many details regarding their “operational security” were shown during the two-part NBC News report aired Feb. 5-6.
Maloney's letter to the inspector general seeks to hold someone accountable for the report, not merely investigating allegations that too many details of the air marshal operation were disclosed. For example, Maloney's letter asks the inspector general to find out "who specifically [within DHS] approved the segments with NBC to be taped?" and "Was there any concern with anyone in DHS regarding the final product before it aired on NBC?"
Although the Federal Air Marshal Service is non-union, the government allows air marshals to join FLEOA. FLEOA, which represents about 22,000 federal agents, including 1,400 air marshals, provides some legal benefits to its members and lobbies on their behalf; however, the organization holds no collective bargaining power for air marshals. The exact number of air marshals is classified, though DHS acknowledges that they number “in the thousands.”
The issue has caught the attention of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security. "The committee doesn’t have current plans to hold hearings, but we will be meeting with FLEOA officials later this month," a committee spokesperson told MSNBC.com.
MSNBC.com previously spoke to several air marshals, including an air marshal supervisor from a major field office, who agreed that the news program showed in too explicit detail how the marshals moved through airport security, how they presented their credentials and to whom; how they dressed; how they boarded an airplane; and special devices they use to communicate.
On Friday FLEOA sent members of Congress what it calls a “record of official notice” that detailed their allegations and concerns regarding the NBC News report. The letter notes “poor leadership, lack of communication with agents and incredibly bad judgment” being exercised by senior management.
Maloney’s letter also asks the inspector general to look into allegations that Thomas Quinn, director of the federal air marshals, “made statements to approximately 200 [air marshals attending an advanced training session] that were derogatory towards FLEOA,” which included calling FLEOA officials “pea-brains.”
Maloney’s letter says the combination of the potential for security breaches resulting from the NBC footage, Quinn’s alleged comments about FLEOA and “past directives” by air marshal officials that have “placed a gag order on individual [air marshals] from expressing concerns over operating procedures raises serious concerns that there are no set procedures for whistle-blowing” in the air marshal program.
Vetted and cleared
The concerns noted by FLEOA and Maloney’s letter are “old issues” that have been refuted, said Dave Adams, a spokesman for the marshal program.
Adams, a former Secret Service agent with 28 years of law enforcement experience, says he personally oversaw the NBC News project and “takes offense” at any suggestion that he would knowingly do anything that compromised security.
Adams reiterated what he told MSNBC.com last month when concerns over the NBC News segment first arose. “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 brushed off any notion that Quinn has been dismissive of FLEOA, its officials or its concerns. “I’m categorizing all that as hearsay,” Adams said.
Adams noted that senior leadership in the air marshal service is well equipped to handle any operational issues and that rank-and-file air marshals are encouraged to bring any complaints to their supervisors.
Asked how Quinn handles the concerns FLEOA has specifically made to him, Adams said: “There is no reason the [federal air marshals], acting as FLEOA representatives, should have any more influence with management than a line-level FAM does. That is the opinion of Director Quinn.”