In an unusual move, the Transportation Security Administration has started giving breath alcohol tests to some air marshals before they board assigned flights.
Roderick Allison, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, wrote in an internal Feb. 20 email, obtained by Reveal, that the TSA’s Office of Inspection would soon “begin conducting reasonable suspicion alcohol testing, domestically and internationally” of the air marshals, who are assigned to guard U.S. commercial flights against terrorism and hijackings.
“Although the overwhelming majority of our workforce are mission focused dedicated professionals, TSA had to take steps to curtail the behavior of a handful of employees who continue to engage in egregious misconduct,” Allison, who oversaw the TSA’s inspection office before taking over the service last year, wrote in the email.
One air marshal recently was called at his hotel and instructed to report to the airport for testing, 30 minutes before he was to be on-duty for a mission out of the Washington, D.C., area, said Frank Terreri, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association’s section for air marshals.
Another air marshal recently had to report 45 minutes before flight duty to be assessed for alcohol use but was not subjected to a breath test, said Lawrence Berger, the association’s general counsel, who provided Allison’s email to Reveal.
Calling it “a total embarrassment” and “the worst management decision ever,” Terreri said the TSA is building a costly shadow agency to test air marshals.
“Not only do we have to worry about terrorists, but we also have to worry about internal investigators following us around overseas,” he said. “That doesn’t bode well with foreign military, law enforcement or intelligence agencies that our guys have to subject to a Breathalyzer.”
The move to give breath tests is just the latest in a string of controversies, disputes and embarrassments that have plagued the agency. Reveal reported this week that bored air marshals have turned to soliciting prostitutes, adultery and other misconduct, often fueled by alcohol, in a culture akin to a spring break party.
In response to what he described as a “direct slap to the face,” Terreri wrote members of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association that the group has launched an initiative to remove the air marshals from the TSA.
“In 2015, the flying FAM is treated as a recalcitrant child, one who needs to be monitored and randomly tested for alcohol prior to performing their duties. Ironically, no other Federal Agency employs this type of ‘reasonable suspicion testing,’ ” he wrote. “FAMs are mandated by a policy that is so secret that they aren’t allowed to view it.”
TSA officials declined to comment for this story. Department of Homeland Security officials declined to respond to requests for the agency’s current policy on alcohol consumption before air marshals fly.
Air marshals are considered “safety-sensitive positions” and are subject to drug and alcohol testing, according to a 2005 directive on employee conduct, which goes on to say they “shall abstain from alcohol for a minimum” of four hours before nonmission duty and eight hours before a mission. The blood alcohol content at which they are considered impaired is far lower than for the general public: 0.02.
“While on international or domestic overnight missions, many air marshals go to the bars in the hotels and consume alcoholic beverages,” said P. Jeffrey Black, a retired air marshal from the Las Vegas field office. “The issue then becomes the amount of time that has passed from the air marshal’s last alcoholic beverage to the time the air marshal must report for flight duty.”
But, Black added, hourly policies are “both inconsistent and ineffective since everybody metabolizes alcohol in their system differently.”
Air marshals cover a small fraction of the more than 28,000 daily U.S. flights. When a passenger was subdued after rushing the cockpit on a recent Denver-bound flight from the Washington, D.C., area, for instance, there were no air marshals on the plane.
Whether disillusioned with the mission or management of the service with an $800 million annual budget, air marshals reportedly are leaving in droves as some field offices have been shuttered or are on the chopping block. Some fed-up air marshals this week sued the agency in federal claims court because they say they’re owed overtime wages and back pay for the three years before the lawsuit was filed.
What specifically spurred the agency to implement the practice of alcohol testing for air marshals now is unclear. The air marshals, however, have had issues with alcohol in the past, such as when eight air marshals in the New York office were fired in 2012 for drinking on the job and six more were suspended for knowing about the behavior and not reporting it.
The TSA has said that under Allison’s leadership, the service has implemented alcohol awareness training and provided guidance on how and where employees can get help and treatment.
In a March 23 letter to top TSA lawyer Francine J. Kerner, Berger, the association’s attorney, raised concerns that whatever policy existed there did not appear to be clear guidelines on how testing is determined, what reasonable suspicion is and what happens if an air marshal is found to be intoxicated. He wrote that there is no proof to justify a need for breath alcohol testing and asked that the policy be rescinded.
“Will FAMS suffer the ignominy and intrusiveness of a breath test in a public space at an airport?” Berger wrote. “The possibility that FAMs would arrive at work intoxicated is not an actual problem, agency wide, nor is it pervasive within the corps of FAMs.”
An ongoing internal inquiry-turned-Justice Department criminal investigation is looking into allegations that air marshals had their flight schedules changed in exchange for personal favors and sex, possibly leaving some flights uncovered, Reveal reported last month.
The report sparked a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigation and spurred questions from U.S. senators in a recent TSA oversight hearing. TSA officials on Thursday held a briefing on the matter for representatives from the House oversight committee, an aide told Reveal.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.