Selection standards for air marshals are "too lenient", says the US Department of Homeland Security after an investigation of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) revealed that a significant minority of its employees had a history of violence or a criminal record.
Some marshals had also been fired from previous government employment, according to the department's Office of Inspector General (OIG).
The report reveals that FAMS managers began experiencing disciplinary problems with some active air marshals in 2003. On reviewing individual files, it was found that some had behaved similarly while previously employed, but were approved by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adjudicators without comment.
Managers also found FAMS selection standards inconsistent and recurrent training not applied with sufficient rigour. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist hijackings in the USA, Congress voted a massive expansion programme for FAMS. Since then, the OIG reports, about 10,000 air marshals have been screened for employment but, even when questionable details of a potential employee arose, they were often accepted.
FAMS management reviewed 504 applicants who had been favourably adjudicated and, of those, FAMS provided the OIG with 161 air marshal personnel security files that had information suggesting adjudication was lenient or questionable. The 161 individuals - 104 of which had been employed by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and were already active air marshals with top-secret clearances - contained financial, employment and criminal concerns, reports the OIG. Among the cases were undischarged bankrupts and applicants who had abused government resources as federal employees or who had been dismissed from employment and then lied about their dismissal in their applications. About one-third of the staff involved had been arrested or faced allegations of misconduct, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Among the 104 former BOP employees, there were 155 separate cases of misconduct, only 32 of which were discovered during formal background investigations. When the 161 cases were brought to the attention of the TSA's Credentialling Program Office (CPO), the CPO still approved 159 of the personnel, says the OIG, one of whom had been fired from the US Customs Service for disruptive or violent behaviour and another who had been denied a gun permit by the state of New York.
DAVID LEARMOUNT / LONDON