This Agency Needs an Exorcism

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent revelations that employees of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) accuse supervisors of widespread corruption, discrimination, and mismanagement is nothing new. Rather it's an old story made new by the botched terrorism attack of Christmas Day.

On that day, 23-year-old jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate explosive powders on a cross-Atlantic flight from the Netherlands to Detroit. His concoction ignited rather than exploded, a malfunction that may have saved the lives of the 289 passengers and crew onboard. On fire in his seat, it wasn't a federal air marshal that put out Abdulmutallab and subdued him: it was passengers and crew.

Federal air marshals are supposed to protect as many of the types of flights that al Qaeda targets-- long distance and nonstop--as possible on a daily basis. They are the last line of defense the aviation industry has against terrorists. Yet according to CBS News, the FAMS has approximately 3,000 officers to police about 27,000 total flights across, into, and out of the United States any given day. Indeed the FAMS is so understaffed that after Abdulmutallab's failed attack, it had to ask six agencies for emergency personnel for a 90-day surge of officers to protect flights.

One reason why the FAMS is so short of marshals is that agency is rife with "[s]exist, racist, homophobic, anti-disabled vet group, grossly incompetent" managers, an anonymous air marshal told CBS News.  Another public interest journalism Web site reports widespread employee allegations of manager misconduct and retaliation.

ProPublica has interviewed or obtained complaints from 85 current and former air marshals in nearly every one of the agency's 21 field offices over the past year and half. They all told similar stories of being treated unfairly in promotions, assignments or discipline by supervisors who target those who speak up or don't fit a certain mold. Some air marshals who tried to address their complaints through proper channels say they felt demoralized by the process.

The whistleblowers say the agency is run by an "old boys club" of white male--mainly ex-Secret Service--agents who hurt morale and cause employee attrition. CBS obtained pictures of a board laid out like the game show "Jeopardy!" by FAMS supervisors at a field office in Orlando. The categories translate into code words for undesirable employees such as homosexuals, women, and racial minorities. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency's parent organization, is investigating.

But these allegations aren't as explosive as the ones levied by a FAMS whistleblower who is still fighting his termination by the agency in 2006. Former federal air marshal Robert MacLean's accusations describe a managerial culture that puts its own interests in front of national security. The events that led to his firing stem from the summer of 2003, when the aviation sector was under high-alert because of an imminent plot by al Qaeda. According to the Department of Homeland Security advisory, "this type of operation would preclude the need for flight-trained hijackers." The threat was considered so dire that MacLean had to report back to his Las Vegas office to get an in-person briefing, an unprecedented event. 

Two days later, MacLean received a text message on his cellphone telling him and other air marshals to cancel their hotel reservations for their upcoming remain-over-night flights to avoid late cancellation fees. After calling into his field office, he learned that headquarters had canceled FAMS coverage on all long-distance flights for 60 days because of budgetary woes.  This agency operational plan came only days after MacLean had been warned of the al Qaeda plot to attack international flights. MacLean, bewildered by the stunning and irresponsible FAMS plan, contacted field offices of the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General, but he was told there was nothing they could do. MacLean then made the fateful decision to disclose the FAMS directive to MSNBC reporter Brock Meeks, who took it to Congress.

The response was immediate and effective. Members of Congress and the media pounced on FAMS for endangering the flying public. Sen. Barbara Boxer thanked MacLean, then anonymous, in a public statement for blowing the whistle. The FAMS canceled its plan.

But almost two years later, MacLean admitted to an internal investigator that he was the source of the July 2003 disclosure. Four months later MacLean was removed from active duty and then finally fired in August 2006. The FAMS justified MacLean's firing because they claimed the information sent to him on his cellphone was Sensitive Security Information (SSI), a special class of sensitive but unclassified information protected from the Freedom of Information Act. MacLean, however, argues that the information he received wasn't marked SSI nor was it sent to his encrypted and password-protected PDA as agency policy required for SSI information. The TSA does not dispute this but counters that MacLean should have known the information in the text message was SSI and that by disclosing it, he was telling al Qaeda that U.S. airliners were unprotected. Two weeks after MacLean was fired and three years after the disclosure, the TSA retroactively determined the original text message in question was indeed SSI despite the fact the message was sent without the SSI designation nor sent to his encrypted, password-protected PDA.

But MacLean believes his termination has nothing to do with his alleged SSI disclosure and everything to do with his and his colleagues' attachment to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), a professional association that gives legislative voice to rank-and-file law enforcement officers. (Federal rules prohibit air marshals from unionizing.) The FAMS chapter MacLean and colleagues established began to petition FAMS senior management for changes to policies and procedures they believed endangered their security and the safety of the flying public. They agitated management to change mandates that forced all air marshals to not only wear business attire but to receive escorted access to their gates where they preboarded in front of their flight's passengers. It wasn't hard for a terrorist to connect the dots that these men in business suits and military buzz cuts were there to protect that flight.

But these common sense suggestions to management were received caustically by then FAMS Director Thomas Quinn, a former Secret Service agent. Hostile to the FLEOA, he called this small, but vocal, minority of air marshals "insurgents" and "organizational terrorists" in a 2007 interview with The Wall Street Journal. To Quinn, the air marshals' actions were akin to Wobblies trying to overthrow their managers and institute workplace democracy. MacLean, who was then executive vice president of the air marshals' FLEOA chapter, alleges that six other air marshals that established and joined the chapter were retaliated against. A House Judiciary Committee report from May 2006 confirmed MacLean's allegations, stating its investigation found most air marshals interviewed were "reluctant to approach supervisors with... concerns for fear of retaliation."

MacLean, unemployed and financially ruined by his termination, continues to fight on. In November 2009, the Merit Systems Protect Board (MSPB), which rules on disputes between agencies and federal employees, heard MacLean's appeal. If he wins, MacLean could be reinstated or have his termination mitigated to a suspension. But the odds aren't in his favor. The Government Accountability Project, who also represented MacLean in his appeal, describes the MSPB as hostile to federal whistleblowers and employees under the Bush administration. The day before MacLean's hearing, the Senate confirmed two whistleblower-friendly replacements to the MSPB, a nod from President Barack Obama that he means to keep his campaign promise to protect whistleblowers.

If the MSPB rules in favor of MacLean, it may be the first prayer answered for the FAMS rank-and-file. Based on the widespread allegations reaching into the past, it's an agency desperately in need of an institutional exorcism.