A federal air marshal has been grounded pending the outcome of an investigation into events stemming from an e-mail he sent from his personal account involving a female colleague, an official of the Air Marshall Service told MSNBC.com.
The grounded air marshal heads the agency chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officer Association; the association has repeatedly criticized Air Marshal Service policies and lobbied Congress to investigate their claims. Officials of the association claim the grounding of the air marshal is retaliatory, a claim the Air Marshal Service categorically denied.
Air marshal Frank Terreri was stripped of his gun and credentials Wednesday, at home and in front of his wife and six-year old son, by agency supervisors. He has been placed on paid administrative leave.
Congress is looking into allegations raised by FLEOA that question Air Marshal Service policies that the association claims compromise the safety of airline passengers and compromise the security of the air marshals themselves. These allegations range from questions about dress code standards to check-in procedures to air marshals being made to board planes in full view of waiting passengers.
The suspension of Terreri is “a clear indication of [the Air Marshal Service] continuing to engage in witch hunts against any of their employees who speak out on these vital safety issues,” said Jon Adler, a ranking FLEOA official and an active federal law enforcement officer. “I don’t believe [Air Marshal Service officials] can look anyone in the eye and say this course of action had no connection to what Frank had been doing,” Adler said.
The agency staunchly denies its action against Terreri was based on retribution of any kind. In fact, the agency “doesn’t recognize FLEOA as a bargaining unit or a representative functionary of the federal air marshals,” said Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service. “Action was taken based on a specific incident that occurred,” Adams said, referring to an e-mail Terreri sent criticizing a fellow employee. “Our action was not an ad hoc retaliatory action but rather a routine procedure that was consistent with policy.”
Adams dismissed FLEOA’s “witch hunt” allegation saying, “I would categorize it as ‘great fiction.’"
Push comes to shove
FLEOA represents 22,000 federal agents across some 50 agencies. The association counts more than 1,400 air marshals among its members; the exact number of air marshals is classified.
Although Terreri has been sending out signed press releases in his capacity with FLEOA for more than a year, agency officials have generally ignored his efforts, which are done on private time and with private resources, despite strict internal guidelines about air marshals communicating with the media.
Last week FLEOA called on Air Marshal Service Director Thomas Quinn to resign for failure to address its concerns and vowed to “take all necessary and appropriate steps to seek [Quinn’s] removal and replacement.”
Adler said the agency apparently saw their call to remove Quinn as the last straw and moved against Terreri Wednesday, using an e-mail he sent to other air marshal FLEOA members as a justification. In that e-mail, sent Wednesday, Terreri railed against a female air marshal that is the subject of an article in the Oct. 18th issue of People magazine.
In that first-person account a female air marshal, identified only as “Becky,” recounts a typical “day in the life” of an air marshal. But in running through her daily routine, she describes the type of weapon she uses, martial arts techniques and how she profiles passengers as they enter the plane to instantly assess whether or not the person could be a potential threat.
“How much of a sellout can one person possibly be to jeopardize each and every [air marshal] and every member of the American public in a national magazine,” Terreri’s e-mail said, referring to her disclosure of an air marshal’s operational details.
"I'll be on the lookout for her in one of our friendly airports, probably as she is entering the restroom to ensure her SIG Sauer .357 semiautomatic is concealed," Terreri wrote, referring to a section of the article in which Becky talked about ducking into a restroom to make sure her weapon was properly concealed.
Adler says someone in the Air Marshal Service apparently saw that as some kind of a veiled threat but countered that Terreri was “just being facetious.”
The primary reason Terreri’s e-mail prompted such swift reaction from agency officials, however, is because of the immediate and angry backlash it directed toward Becky, MSNBC.com has learned.
Becky has “received harassing phone calls and e-mails to the point where Terreri’s actions have created a hostile work environment for her,” said an Air Marshal official with knowledge of the case. The Air Marshal Service’s conduct and standards specifically prohibit creating a hostile work environment or making disparaging remarks against another employee. “We aren’t going to let that kind of thing happen,” the Air Marshal official said.
Adler brushes aside any suggestion that Terreri’s remarks were disparaging and says the agency should focus on the real problem that his e-mail points out, “the issue of over-disclosing operational points that the public doesn’t need to know.”
Air Marshal Spokesman Adams said the article, which was pre-approved by the agency, contains no information that would compromise an air marshal’s mission.