This issue has flown under the radar, so to speak, but some members of Congress want to bring it in for a landing. A splashy exposé of the federal air marshal program two weeks ago in the New York Times has legislators wondering whether to reform it or ground it altogether, CBS reports:
The director of the Federal Air Marshal Service is responding to a report that claims the organization has issues with alcohol abuse, harassment and low morale in its ranks. Critics say it needs to be reformed – or possibly shut down: https://t.co/BWErOyGqPw pic.twitter.com/rq1A4eS7V9
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 11, 2018
The issue has emerged slowly. An IG report at the end of last year recommended cutbacks and reductions of scope in the mission, and at least one House member wants to shut it down completely:
Last year an inspector general report found “limitations with…contributions to aviation security” and recommended shutting down some operations to better use resources.
Congressman John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, wants to shut down the program.
“It’s just money going down a rat hole and doing no good whatsoever,” Duncan said. “If it was up to me we wouldn’t still have them. Because I think it’s the most needless, useless. wasteful organization in the federal government and that is saying a lot.”
Two weeks ago, the Times painted a pretty bleak picture as well:
It is supposed to be a last line of defense against a Sept. 11-style attack on the United States. But a federal program that puts armed undercover guards on commercial airliners is in such disarray that it does little to deter terrorists, many of its employees say, and is being investigated by Congress.
Alcohol abuse among some in the Federal Air Marshal Service is so rampant that the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the program, has had to monitor whether the armed guards show up for their flights sober, according to five people familiar with the situation. T.S.A. said its office of inspection makes quality assurance visits to ensure that the air marshals are properly prepared for their missions.
Female and minority air marshals said in court documents and interviews that they faced discrimination at work, including being subjected to sexually explicit messages and racist jokes and memes sent on government-issued cellphones. Other air marshals said they were fired or threatened with termination for minor infractions, while misconduct by managers was overlooked. Just 22 percent of the marshals thought their leaders maintained “high standards of honesty and integrity,” according to a federal employee survey completed last year, one of the lowest rankings among agencies.
“I ultimately decided to leave (retire) because I was denied the ability to leverage my experience for the good of the FAMs and I realize that I was part of a system which was putting the emotional well-being of FAMs at risk,” Kathleen Christian, who resigned last year as a clinical psychologist with the federal air marshals, said on Nov. 17 in a scathing email to several marshals. A copy was obtained by The New York Times.
The “last line of defense” was actually the program that armed the pilots themselves. The Federal Flight Deck Officer program is run out of the Federal Air Marshal Service, but it is a separate effort that acts as a complement to air marshals, who may or may not be on the same plane at the same time. An FFDO would be the final defense against a takeover of the cockpit if a terrorist gets past an air marshal for some reason.
One reason that critics have called for an end to the program is the lack of terrorist interventions since 9/11. That might be a testament to their presence at all, however, acting as an effective deterrent to terrorist plots along with other upgraded security protocols. The issues raised by the NYT are certainly serious but are hardly unsolvable, and they’re hardly unique in law-enforcement/security industries. We don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when dealing with them in other contexts — we fix the problems.
The cost of the program sounds like a lot of money, but it’s hardly the biggest line item in TSA’s budget of nearly $8 billion. For around 10% of their overall budget, the agency provides security that doesn’t intrude at all on the privacy of air-travel passengers. Furthermore, the program exists to instill confidence in air travel, which generates over $200 billion in revenue for US airlines every year. An $800 million investment in both security and confidence seems like a pretty good idea.
The serious issues in the FAMS should be addressed quickly and effectively, but the guiding principle here should be to mend it rather than end it.