The chairman of a House committee says he will launch an investigation into allegations surrounding the Federal Air Marshal Service and whether employees manipulated schedules, leaving commercial flights deemed security risks uncovered. 

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, today called the allegations, first detailed in a Reveal report, “salacious” and said he plans to send a letter to the agency on Monday. He added that he hopes it’s an isolated incident but fears it might not be.

More than 60 air marshals are facing scrutiny as investigators examine to what extent flight schedules were changed, giving some preferred routes or destinations in exchange for personal favors and sex.

“If everything is on the up-and-up, they have nothing to worry about. If they manipulate (flight schedules) for their own personal pleasure, we have a problem with that,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t want to disparage the reputation of the entire group, but this is not a dating service. They are supposed to be providing vital security based on threat levels. Again, I hope this is isolated to one or two people, but we’re going to find out.” 

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who worked on the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act that expanded the air marshal service, said anyone found responsible should be held accountable.

“If someone is undermining the Air Marshals program, which I believe is critical to the safety of the American people, they should be fired,” Boxer said in an emailed statement.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he’ll launch an investigation into allegations that Federal Air Marshal Service employees manipulated schedules.
Credit: Susan Walsh/Associated Press Credit: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The senator’s office also made an inquiry Thursday with the Department of Homeland Security. Boxer wrote provisions of the 2001 law that require armed air marshals to guard high-risk flights, with an emphasis on placing them on cross-country flights.

What started as an internal matter stemming from a spat between ex-lovers who both worked for the service grew into an unfolding criminal investigation, Reveal reported Thursday. Investigators have focused on a program specialist in a Virginia-based dispatch hub, who may have fabricated flight cancellations, changed schedules and reassigned air marshals she had sexual relationships with or was interested in dating.

Those actions would have come at taxpayers’ expense, cut into airlines’ bottom line and jeopardized public safety in a post-9/11 environment that saw rapid growth in the service. Although their exact number is a closely held secret, an estimated 4,000 armed air marshals are responsible for protecting U.S. commercial flights against hijackings and terrorists.

Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, responded to the allegations of misconduct by outlining the high stakes involved: “Aviation security is a matter of national security and the U.S. government’s responsibility,” said Day, whose organization lobbies for the commercial airline industry.

Current and former Transportation Security Administration officials expressed dismay but also defended the service as a whole.

“This isn’t indicative of the hard-working men and women who do the job on a daily basis, and it denigrates what we do,” said Frank Terreri, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association’s section for air marshals. “This puts them in a horrible light, all for a few alleged bad seeds.”

In a written statement issued today, the TSA said that since 2014, new federal air marshal leadership has implemented a variety of oversight and auditing measures. A top-to-bottom review of the mission flight schedule operations included random call-recording audits, monitoring of official conversations and an audit of the scheduling reservations computer system.

The air marshals long have been plagued by controversy, criticism and low morale. But Kip Hawley, the TSA’s administrator from 2005 to 2009, said this is not just another case of waste, fraud or abuse.

“Those things happen, unfortunately, everywhere and should be investigated,” Hawley said. “If the FAMS were taken off risk-priority flights, leaving them uncovered, then it’s visceral, personal and emotional because of what happened on 9/11, and it’s disrespectful to those victims, it’s disrespectful to air marshals who do their job and it’s disrespectful to the passengers in the country they are supposed to protect.”

In recent years, Congress also has raised a skeptical eyebrow at the agency, citing improvements – and needs – elsewhere in security and technology.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in his final report on the Department of Homeland Security issued last month as he retired, concluded that “it is unclear to what extent the FAMs program is reducing risk to aviation security, despite the more than $820 million annually that is spent on the program.”

“It is not clear that the FAMs program and its strategy for allocating resources, including assigning federal air marshals to certain flights, has kept pace with these changes and security enhancements,” the report says.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wrote provisions of the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act that require armed air marshals to guard high-risk flights. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

The air marshals have seen their budget shrink in recent years, and compounded by a changing airline industry, have shuttered four offices with two slated to close in the 2016 fiscal year, bringing the total number of offices to 20. The service also has been held to a hiring freeze for several years.

Shuttered offices include San Diego; Tampa, Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Phoenix, with Cleveland and Cincinnati to follow, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2016 budget request. The department has asked for $816.7 million for the air marshals, up $16.5 million from this year. That includes about $100 million for travel and related costs and $5.2 million to add new personnel.

With the task of protecting the flying public in tight quarters, the service employs armed law enforcement officers who overall have the best aim among federal agencies, according to the Department of Homeland Security budget documents. Air marshals also participate in the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force program.

But with relatively few incidents, marshals also face grinding travel schedules dominated by inactivity.

“When the biggest problems air marshals face on a daily basis is an occasional unruly passenger, it is easy to see how people can become increasingly complacent and forgetful of their duties,” said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers.

“Our organization hopes this incident will cause the federal marshals service to carefully examine their program, policies, procedures and goals, in the light of their experiences since this program has been in effect,” Kidd said. “In short, does what they are doing make sense?”

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.