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The Oklahoman: Unsafe Skies

August 02, 2006
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By Adam Miles, GAP Legislative Representative. This article also appeared in the Fort Madison Daily Democrat (IN), Greeneville Sun (TN), Coeur d'Alene Press (ID), and the Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA).

A little-noticed congressional investigation has confirmed what whistleblowers have been warning for years: the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) has been systematically exposing the identities of its own “covert” air marshals, who are in charge of overcoming terrorists in the next 9/11-like hijacking.

Anonymity is the only means by which air marshals can get the jump on potential hijackers. Without it, marshals have an “X” marked on their chests, leaving them and their weapons exposed. Yet FAMS undermines anonymity in numerous ways. One is the requirement that air marshals wear formal slacks and dress shoes, even on weekend flights to the southwest or Florida. Even worse, during check-in, air marshals are required to publicly display their credentials at least three times in the airport and are escorted onto flights in front of other waiting passengers.

The FAMS lodging policy groups large numbers of air marshals in a select few hotels, contrary to the government-wide policy of scattering undercover agents. Here, they are required again to disclose their credentials, but this time to uncleared civilian hotel staff. This is done to receive a “special” discount. However, the so-called “FAMS rate” is actually equal to the normal government rate, which marshals could easily receive without blowing their cover. The program led to at least one hotel advertising the undercover air marshal service as its “Company of the Month.”

Beyond criticizing these aviation safety blunders, the congressional investigation exposed a FAMS leadership that allows indefensible policies to remain in place despite hundreds of internal pleas for relief.

At the onset of the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation in October 2004, former FAMS Director Thomas Quinn told the committee, "If a modification to an existing policy were suggested [by an air marshal], the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) would send the requested modification to headquarters for review. To date no such modification requests have been received from field offices."

This statement was made one year after Frank Terreri, an active-duty air marshal, wrote a detailed memo to Director Quinn on behalf of 1,500 other air marshals, citing the security problems. Despite Quinn’s statement to the Committee, there is no question that he knew of the concerns.

After hearing from Terreri, Quinn told another SAC that he wasn't going to respond. FAMS managers then placed Terreri on indefinite “desk duty,” as Quinn personally initiated a series of non-stop “security” investigations against him. Government investigators ultimately determined that all charges were “unfounded,” but the nightmare didn't stop for Terreri until investigators grew tired of doing FAMS’ dirty work.

Others have experienced similar retaliation. During the course of its investigation, the Committee discovered “numerous emails and reports from various Federal Air Marshals regarding requests for policy modification or complaints about FAMS operating procedures.” More often than not, these requests contained suggestions that could fix a specific security problem in a matter of hours.

Rather than listen to concerned professionals, senior FAMS management harassed them into obedience. As the report notes, one SAC was removed from his duties for blowing the whistle on the inflexible dress code. Director Quinn also took steps to reinforce an agency-wide gag order, requiring air marshals to be “silent professionals.” In other words: Shut up and fly.

In theory, this retaliation is illegal under the Whistleblower Protection Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 1989. But that law has become the best reason for government employees to remain silent. Activist court decisions have gutted the protections Congress intended, resulting in a 1-119 record for whistleblowers since 1994. Legislation to restore genuine whistleblower protections was inserted into the Senate’s version of the 2007 defense authorization bill. To protect us all, the House of Representatives must act by supporting the Senate’s whistleblower rights reform.

Given the current state of affairs, it's no wonder that the patriotic men and women who joined FAMS after 9/11 are leaving the service in record numbers. As Terreri notes, common sense revisions in FAMS procedures could make the service effective overnight, and restore the confidence of air marshals without costing the taxpayer a dime. The Judiciary Committee investigation is a step in the right direction. But, until Congress moves to protect air marshals for voicing their concerns, it's unrealistic to expect them to continue sacrificing their careers to protect the flying public.

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