May 25, 2017 01:03 PM PST
SINCE 2007

Federal Air Marshals: Tale of failed promise

My Take

If you’re a Federal Air Marshal with less than five years of experience, look for another job.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Most air marshals won’t heed my advice until it’s too late. If they wait until the ten-year point, they will no longer be attractive to other federal law enforcement employers, because they’ll be deemed under-skilled and under-motivated.

Why under-skilled? To answer that, first a little history. It’s going to be a little dense, so stay with me. There is a story here that you should hear, if you care about national security against terrorist threats.

When 9/11 hit, Congress quickly passed the The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It also re-defined air marshals. In effect, air marshals were still called air marshals, but their authorized functions expanded tremendously, to include protecting and enforcing laws pertaining to all forms of public transportation, including cruise ships, ferries, trains, buses, urban light rail. Air marshals were authorized to investigate, arrest, obtain warrants, and other authorities normally held by Federal Special Agents, EG: FBI agent and others.

In those early years of 2002-2005, many air marshals were doing all of those functions, mostly when attached to the JTTFs — Joint Terrorist Task Forces, run by the FBI. Air marshals assigned to the JTTFs were hand-picked men and women who performed well, earning national awards. In those days, the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) reported not to the TSA, but rather to ICE — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department. Unlike the TSA, ICE is a full-blown law enforcement agency, whereas TSA is a regulatory agency with a law enforcement component, the FAMS.

Then FAMS bosses pulled a fast one. The bosses apparently were dissatisfied with the conditions ICE imposed, so like deadbeat parents who vacate their apartment, jam the kids in the car, and disappear into the night, the FAMS bosses pulled FAMS out of ICE, and re-attached it to the TSA. In fed world, when a law enforcement division is a component of a larger regulatory agency, the law enforcement section often drives the ship. Part of this is because the personnel comprising the law enforcement component were better trained, better educated, better vetted, better motivated, better disciplined, than most of the people in their parent agency. We called it “the tail wagging the dog.” But in this instance, the new TSA executives weren’t riding in their first bureaucratic rodeo. They came from airline corporations and other federal regulatory agencies. They refused to let the FAMS tail wag their dog.

That relegated the FAMS and air marshals to a second-class role. That situation always hobbles and demoralizes a law enforcement organization, hampering it with bothersome bureaucratic hassles. The FAMS didn’t have its own attorneys (or too few to speak of), nor even its own media affairs officers. The rules-oriented TSA types often resented the results-oriented FAMS types. This slowly and quietly caused a cascade of negative consequences for the FAMS from top to bottom. It resulted in the FAMS shrinking its mission substantially to only riding on airplanes, with a small side-show of air marshals performing VIPR Team missions.

VIPR means Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. It was originally conceived as a team of both uniformed and plainclothes armed air marshals, working closely with transit police to serve not only as visual deterrents to potential terrorists who may be targeting mass transit, but also to prevent as well as respond to criminal activity on mass transit. VIPR teams worked on ferries, trains, commuter rail, subways, interstate buses, airport shuttle buses throughout the nation. VIPR teams also worked the transportation aspects of major “special events,” like the World Series and MLB playoffs, Superbowls, Boston Marathon, and major entertainment events. But then the TSA regulatory folks decided they didn’t like the assertive enforcement-oriented approaches of what they viewed as TSA peeps doing police work, disregarding that that’s what the FAMS’ original mandate was — to perform federal police, investigative and undercover functions in all matters regarding public transportation security. The TSA responded by populating VIPR teams with non-law enforcement TSA personnel, who had no police training and no police authority. That spelled the end to most of the enforcement and security functions of VIPR Teams.

That’s just the half of it. The best part? Still to come. Meanwhile, air marshals, ready those resumés.

(Filipino-American Greg Abreu is a retired Federal law enforcement officer and instructor. He occasionally lectures on a wide range of critical and sensitive subject matters, including terrorism, law enforcement and defensive firearms use. Please send your comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )