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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Byrd Rule Could Trip Up Health Legislation
4 hours ago

"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”

Senate Votes To Fund Government
1 days ago
House Passes Spending Bill
1 days ago

The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.

Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
2 days ago

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
2 days ago

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.