Former and current air marshals are coming forward to describe a “wheels-up, rings-off” culture of adultery, prostitution and other misconduct. Credit: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

As concerns grew this week that a terrorist group may have planted a bomb potentially aided by lax airport security – that blew up a Russian passenger jet above Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the U.S. government found itself being blasted on aviation security.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog about glaring security gaps within the Transportation Security Administration. Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth said the results of the latest round of covert testing conducted in September “were disappointing and troubling” as auditors found “layers of security simply missing.”

The failures included shortcomings in technology, the agency’s procedures and human effort. The results, however, weren’t unexpected. Tests over the last four years have identified other vulnerabilities, Roth said.

For instance, despite more than a half-billion dollars spent on checked baggage screening, the inspector general found that problems haven’t gotten better since the last time auditors looked at the issue in 2009. Earlier this year, a classified study leaked to the media reported that screeners failed to find weapons in 95 percent of security tests.

“These issues were exacerbated, in my judgment, by a culture, developed over time, which resisted oversight and was unwilling to accept the need for change in the face of an evolving and serious threat,” Roth said. “I am hopeful that the days of TSA sweeping its problems under the rug and simply ignoring the findings and recommendations of the OIG (inspector general’s office) and GAO (Government Accountability Office) are coming to an end.”

Drinking and porn

The criticism resembled that fired earlier this year at the Federal Air Marshal Service, the secretive plainclothes protectors assigned to U.S. commercial flights whose numbers swelled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That included a House oversight investigation spurred by a February report by Reveal and other media outlets peeking into the agency’s baggage.

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial, which called for Congress to ground the air marshals, who are also part of the TSA, has left some people fuming. Both the air marshals’ director and a group that lobbies for the rank and file launched invectives, with a pro-law enforcement group going so far as to say that the Times was a mouthpiece for “jihadists.”

It’s hard to say when the skies will clear for the air marshals, who get lambasted far more than lauded for their role in protecting a fraction of daily U.S. flights.

Nearly 15 years after the coordinated al-Qaida attacks brought down four domestic flights but with few incidents since the agency’s ranks have nosedived into the doldrums. With many air marshals looking to jump airship and a fleet of misconduct, a rising chorus has begun to ask whether it’s time to rethink the service.

More than a few of those dead-tired and bored air marshals, exhausted by relentless flight schedules and overbearing managers, have made a mad dash for their hotel bars, hooked up with prostitutes or thrown caution to the wind by allegedly tweaking their flight schedules to satisfy their own amusement or lust. The misdeeds and allegations, which range from taking over first class and stiffing the airlines to creating an amateur porn shoot abroad, have drawn the attention of law enforcers and lawmakers.

Law enforcement groups that have organized to support the air marshals to counter the detractors or stand up to the agency’s management generally have tried to describe the issues as related to stress, bad managers or the proverbial few bad apples.

Should marshals be grounded?

The Times tried a one-two punch combination, leading with a recap of other recent reporting and citing staunch critics who say the air marshals are a waste of money. The paper followed with a haranguing editorial that argued that air marshals belong in a no-fly zone. But after a spate of bad press, the Times’ call amounted to one roller bag of criticism too many for agency supporters.

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association issued a news release that denounced the “media’s preposterous stance on Federal Air Marshals.”

“The LA Times is not only echoing the sentiments of a misguided U.S. Congressman, they are trumpeting the war cries and desires of radical Islamic Jihadists,” wrote Nathan Catura, the group’s president. “This pandering drivel expressed by both a member of Congress and the LA Times is helping these radical terrorists get exactly what they desire: the elimination of Federal Air Marshals and the protection they provide to American airliners.”

That congressman is Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., who wants to wave goodbye to the air marshals. While he might be one of the harshest critics, he’s not alone. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who retired in January, wrote in his final report on homeland security that it wasn’t clear whether the air marshals actually reduce risks to aviation security or keep pace with enhancements.

Roderick Allison, the air marshals’ director, recently had to defend his agency before the same House committee that heard Roth’s testimony. He wrote to the L.A. Times, saying he wholeheartedly disagreed with its editorial.

“The U.S. aviation system is safe, and that is due to the network of federal, state and local partners working together to thwart terrorist activities,” he wrote. “That counter-terrorism network includes federal air marshals.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth.

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.