AirMarshals?

A recent news report from CBS noted that the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) was closing six of its field offices. As a member of the flying public, I had forgotten about air marshals. I guess that is good because that means there haven’t been problems. On the other hand, I asked myself, “What the heck are these guys doing and is there any accountability?”

At the same time, the administration has doubled many security fees and in the latest iteration of the budget from the White House, security fees are slated to go up again. It seems to beg the question.

CBS News writes:

According to an internal email sent to staff on Friday by Federal Air Marshal Director Robert Bray, the San Diego and Tampa field offices will close by the end of 2014. The Pittsburgh and Phoenix field offices will close by June 2015. And, the Cleveland and Cincinnati field offices are slated to close by June 2016.

The email also says the Las Vegas, Seattle, and Denver offices will be “assessed regularly, from the perspective of risk, intelligence, and industry trends,” and “staffing levels in these offices will not be increased.”

While the government will not disclose how many air marshals there are nationwide for security reasons, there are currently 26 field offices located in cities across the country near most major airports.

This group, shrouded in semi-secrecy, evidently does more than ride in first class ready to spring into action at any sign of a terrorist taking over a plane. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website:

Federal Air Marshals must operate independently without backup, and rank among those Federal law enforcement officers that hold the highest standard for handgun accuracy. They blend in with passengers and rely on their training, including investigative techniques, criminal terrorist behavior recognition, firearms proficiency, aircraft specific tactics, and close quarters self-defense measures to protect the flying public.

So much for the guys in suits in first class acting as the last line of defense. Of course, we have no idea to which flights they are assigned, nor do the terrorists — that’s part of the way it is supposed to work. It does make one wonder, does the mere threat of a possible air marshal aboard a flight deter terrorists? In which case, actual numbers of marshals is less important than the perceived threat. (Kinda like the IRS, which seems ubiquitous, but where the real chances of an audit are miniscule.)

But the TSA website description goes on:

Federal Air Marshals have an ever expanding role in homeland security and work closely with other law enforcement agencies to accomplish their mission. Federal Air Marshals are assigned as Assistant Federal Security Directors for Law Enforcement at many airports nationwide to provide law enforcement coordination with airport stakeholders and other TSA components. Currently, air marshals also staff several positions at different organizations such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Targeting Center, and on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces. In addition, they are distributed among other law enforcement and homeland security liaison assignments during times of heightened alert or special national events.

Heck, these guys sound like the “man Friday” of TSA. They get used everywhere. But, do they have any measurable benefits for the taxpayers? Do they add to our security? Or, are they an organization without a real mission?

Here is the FAMS mission statement, again from the TSA website:

…promotes confidence in the nation’s civil aviation system through the effective deployment of Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) to detect, deter, and defeat hostile acts targeting U.S. air carriers, airports, passengers, and crews.

That is a pretty specific mission. Air marshals are the beat cops of the air. They are our protection while flying. It is the mission I understood when I first learned of the air marshals and they were deployed. But, all of these “ever expanding,” “man Friday” missions with law enforcement coordination, dealing with stakeholders, working with the National Targeting Center, all take away from air marshals effectively walking the beat. We are paying for others to do these other jobs. Air marshals should be our eyes in the air, or we should eliminate the air marshal agency and tell the terrorists that they may still be on planes.

The latest reorganization doesn’t seem to be downsizing the air marshal service.

In a statement to CBS News, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said the closures are, “part of efforts to reallocate our workforce to allow the most effective security in the most efficient manner.” The TSA also said, “no positions are being eliminated and this will not adversely impact the ability of the FAMS to maintain coverage aboard flights arriving from and departing for the affected airports.”

Naturally, law enforcement officer associations want the service to stay in place — it means jobs and more clout for their unions. But, realistically, are federal air marshals really adding anything significant to security of airline passengers?

Travelers United (formerly Consumer Travel Alliance) asked TSA for a list of air marshal successes. TSA responded promptly informing us they are secret. Maybe someone with a higher security clearance than I should ask some hard questions. There should be some justification for this program other than to flesh out a bureaucratic chart. There should be some way to measure the air marshals’ effectiveness.

Effectiveness may be the problem. And, that may be why TSA is downsizing the air marshal office, moving marshals to general security duties and taking the focus off them as the beat cops of the air. If their covert threat to lawbreakers and terrorists is stronger than their actual presence, we may not need as many in the air and may be better served by a stellar PR program demonstrating handgun accuracy and close quarters self-defense measures that may scare the bejesus out of the bad guys.