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GAO issues air marshal report card

The GAO report was released as many Americans prepare to travel this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
The GAO report was released as many Americans prepare to travel this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal air marshals have identified more than 800 suspicious passengers aboard domestic and international flights and made 25 arrests since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- none of them related to terrorism, according to a report by congressional investigators.

The General Accounting Office report, released Monday, documents a series of issues with the 2-year-old Federal Air Marshal Service.

The report was released on the eve of the agency's transfer from the Transportation Security Administration to another Homeland Security Department agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday the move would enhance air security and provide more career opportunities for air marshals, whose ranks have mushroomed from under 50 in 2001 to thousands today.

"This is the right move at the right time for the right reasons," Ridge said as he toured the federal air marshal training facility in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, the predicted more growing pains for the agency as it took on the additional tasks.

Those include cross-training customs and immigration agents to serve as federal air marshals on an as-needed basis and providing opportunities for air marshals to work in other areas of immigration law enforcement.

"According to the secretary, the transfer will facilitate the coordination and sharing of law enforcement information. ... However, TSA has raised questions about how air marshals' flights will be scheduled, and the TSA administrator has expressed a desire to influence the scheduling," the GAO report said.

The report also said "immigration agents have reportedly also wondered how ICE would juggle air marshal deployments with the bureau's current investigative work."

The GAO report confirmed media reports that said the service, whose fiscal year 2003 budget is $545 million, had problems managing background checks for its air marshals in the rush to get thousands hired quickly.

It initially hired candidates who successfully passed preliminary background checks and gave them interim security clearances that allowed them to start work immediately while more detailed background checks were completed.

Some of those candidates waited for final clearances for up to a year, despite the fact that the service had paid thousands of extra dollars to get the checks expedited in 75 days or less.

As of October, the GAO said approximately 3 percent of air marshals were still awaiting top secret clearances, down from 25 percent in July.

The GAO said 80 air marshals were placed on administrative leave in June because of questions that arose after their full background checks were completed. Two months later, 47 had received clearance and returned to work, 19 were denied clearances and seven resigned.

Other candidates have since been "found unsuitable," and 14 air marshals are on administrative leave because of issues that surfaced during full background checks, according to the GAO.

But GAO auditors disputed media reports of low morale and a "flood" of air marshal resignations.

In August 2002, when the media reports surfaced, the GAO said slightly more than 4 percent of the newly hired air marshals had resigned.

The GAO also said that between September 2001 through July 2003 about 10 percent of the "thousands of newly hired air marshals left the service."

According to the Federal Air Marshal Service, the cost to recruit, train and deploy a new marshal is approximately $40,275.

The GAO also disputed a USA TODAY article that reported about 1,250 air marshals called in sick over an 18-day period because of moral issues and over work.

The GAO said the government report the article was based on was misleading, incorrectly labeled and had incorrect data.

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