By MICHAEL COLLINS
Scripps Howard News Service
June 29, 2009
U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., has taken to the House floor in recent days to ridicule the service as a "needless, useless agency" and argue that air marshals have "a cushy, easy job" that requires little more than sitting on a plane.
He also contends that the number of air marshals charged with committing crimes exceeds the number of arrests the agents themselves have made.
"I think they are doing almost no good at all," he said.
The air marshal service, which falls under the Transportation Security Administration, is a law enforcement agency that is probably best known for putting armed, undercover agents on selected flights to help thwart possible terrorist attacks or other hostile acts.
President George W. Bush ordered the program to be greatly expanded after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Before 9/11, the agency had roughly 33 air marshals. Today, there are about 4,000, although the exact number is classified.
Megan Norris, an air marshal and spokeswoman for the agency, defended the program, which has a 2009 budget of about $820 million.
"Obviously, aviation is our primary mission, and since 9/11, we've had tens of thousands of flights that have flown successfully under our watchful eye," she said.
While it's a common belief that an air marshal's job consists only of sitting on a plane and flying back and forth across the country, that is a misperception, Norris said.
"We're there to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public, so it's our vigilance and our training that allows us to be ready to react should there be any type of threat or situation on a plane that could harm the passengers, the crew, the aircraft," she said.
The congressman, however, said arrest records show that air marshals do very little. Since 2001, the entire agency has averaged slightly over four arrests per year. That comes to about one a year per 1,000 employees and means the government is spending about $200 million per arrest, Duncan said.
"When we are so many trillions of dollars in debt -- a national debt of over $13 trillion -- we simply cannot afford to waste money in this way," he said.
Norris countered that arrests aren't a good way to measure the agency's success. Federal air marshals are trained to report suspicious activity to local law enforcement agencies, "so even in situations where an arrest would be appropriate, the majority of that is handled by the local law enforcement in whatever airport or location we are at," she said.
Duncan also pointed to news reports that said dozens of air marshals have been charged with crimes or accused of misconduct since 9/11, including drunken driving, domestic violence, human trafficking and attempting to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.
Norris responded that the majority of air marshals are professionals who are dedicated to the job.
"We're out there ready to put our lives on the line to defend everybody on that aircraft and anybody else who could possibly be harmed, so it's disappointing to us when people choose to focus on that (misconduct)," she said.
Duncan stressed that he has never had any run-ins with an air marshal and said he doesn't even know anyone who works for the program. Regardless, he believes the government needs to be more reasonable in its security spending. He'd like to see the Air Marshal Service abolished, although he doesn't expect that to happen anytime soon.
"The problem is, nobody wants to vote against anything that has the word security attached to it," he said. "Well, we're going ridiculously overboard. Even if we spend the entire federal budget on security, we couldn't make life totally, completely safe."
On Wednesday, Duncan saw his contention proved right on the House floor. His amendment to freeze the agency's 2010 budget at the current level instead of giving it a proposed $40 million increase was shot down by a vote of 294-134 as the House wrestled with, and later approved, the program's $860 million budget for next year as part of the broader spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security.
"I just think this $860 million that we are about to appropriate for them would be much better spent on almost anything that you can think of," he said. "There are hundreds of other good things, maybe even thousands, that money could be spent on. I just think it's a total waste."
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