Head Air Marshal to Congress: We’ve Still Got This

The “last line of defense” in the sky is persevering despite several challenges.

The economy class cabin of a new Airbus A350X WB passenger plane on the tarmac at Munich Airport during a presentation of the new plane by Airbus officials on February 27, 2015 in Munich, Germany. The A350 is a long-distance passenger plane that Airbus has developed to compete against the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
National Journal
Colby Bermel
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Colby Bermel
July 16, 2015, 4 p.m.

The dir­ect­or of the Fed­er­al Air Mar­shal Ser­vice told Con­gress on Thursday that his de­part­ment is pre­pared for evolving ter­ror threats des­pite of­fice clos­ures and em­ploy­ee mis­con­duct.

Ro­d­er­ick Al­lis­on ap­peared be­fore a House Home­land Se­cur­ity sub­pan­el to field con­cerns that the ser­vice is no longer a cap­able com­pon­ent of U.S. se­cur­ity strategy. “What I see is a vi­able coun­terter­ror­ism force that sup­ports the coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts of this gov­ern­ment. We may be smal­ler and lean­er, and budget dol­lars are tight, but we have to do our part,” he said.

The last con­gres­sion­al hear­ing on the ser­vice was three years ago, when the same sub­com­mit­tee looked in­to al­leg­a­tions of dis­crim­in­a­tion and re­tali­ation by su­per­visors against mar­shals—a cul­ture de­scribed in a Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment re­port as “a great deal of ten­sion, mis­trust, and dis­like.” Al­lis­on re­spon­ded to ques­tions from law­makers about the events of 2012, say­ing that there was “no evid­ence of wide­spread dis­crim­in­a­tion.”

A re­cent con­tro­versy oc­curred in March, when an air mar­shal left his loaded hand­gun in a bath­room stall at Ne­wark Liberty In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port in New Jer­sey, and boarded his as­signed flight without the weapon. “You have breaches of pro­tocol,” Al­lis­on said of the in­cid­ent. “This young man, un­for­tu­nately, made a mis­take, and it’s prob­ably go­ing to cost him.”

There were broad­er is­sues on the table, too. Al­lis­on in­formed law­makers that six field of­fices will be closed in the next year, with four of them already shuttered. But these per­son­nel are be­ing re­as­signed to “our most crit­ic­al” of­fices to ser­vice high­er-risk air­ports and flights. “These clos­ures will not ad­versely im­pact our abil­ity to main­tain cov­er­age,” he said.

But staff­ing woes re­main. The last class of mar­shals—about 400 to 500, ac­cord­ing to Al­lis­on— gradu­ated in 2011, and the ser­vice has not been able to af­ford to field an­oth­er class. Al­though its an­nu­al budget is $800 mil­lion, Al­lis­on said that any ex­tra money has gone to­ward ad­dress­ing at­tri­tion. Nev­er­the­less, a new class is be­ing planned for the near fu­ture. “The pro­cess is still go­ing on,” he said. “We are go­ing to make an­oth­er run for next year.”

“Not be­ing able to hire has a det­ri­ment­al ef­fect on the work­force. There’s a sort of feel­ing of ‘dy­ing on the vine.’” Al­lis­on said. “The work­force is get­ting older. A lot of people that we hired in the be­gin­ning after 9/11, they’re go­ing to be walk­ing out the door in 2020, 2021 “¦ That is the No. 1 is­sue I would put on my wish list in big, bold let­ters.”

Al­lis­on said the ma­jor­ity of per­son­nel are fly­ing mar­shals or dir­ect sup­port. The ser­vice is fa­cing a 6 per­cent at­tri­tion rate this year.

Law­makers in­quired about the ser­vice’s tac­tic­al read­i­ness for evolving ter­ror threats. Al­lis­on said mis­sion plan­ning is in­formed by pas­sen­ger travel pat­terns, as­sessed pas­sen­ger risk, and con­sid­er­a­tion for loc­a­tions with known vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies.

In reply to a ques­tion about the seat­ing loc­a­tions of mar­shals—par­tic­u­larly the per­cep­tion that they sit in first-class—Al­lis­on said that he “can’t elab­or­ate in an open hear­ing about our tac­tic­al seat­ing. “¦ As a mat­ter of prac­tice, those things are man­aged to a very high de­gree. I look for­ward to hav­ing a private con­ver­sa­tion with you in a closed set­ting, and I will give you the full pleth­ora of in­form­a­tion with re­gard to where we sit and why we sit there.”

“Wherever that in­cid­ent is, we’re go­ing to re­spond to it” he ad­ded.

This art­icle has been up­dated.

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