Homeland Security IG: Half of money spent on air marshals wasted

DHS orders federal agencies to protect against cyber ‘hijacking’

About half of the Federal Air Marshal Service budget is being wasted, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday in a short summary of a largely classified report.

The conclusion further calls into question the effectiveness of the undercover Transportation Security Administration program, which involves placing plainclothes agents on commercial flights to detect and intervene against in-flight threats.

The inspector general said it “identified $394 million in funds that could be put to better use.”

The most up-to-date budget documents from the department show the budget for the Federal Air Marshal Service, or FAMS, is about $803 million.

The IG made public a five-sentence memorandum revealing a classified review of “the extent to which FAMS can interdict an improvised explosive device during flight. We identified vulnerabilities with FAMS’ contribution to international flight security.”

“TSA appreciates the work of the Office of the Inspector General,” the agency said in a statement. “The Federal Air Marshal Service continues to evolve mission tactics in light of threats to transportation security. While we cannot comment on the specifics of the OIG’s recommendation due to its sensitive nature, TSA continues to examine and explore methods and capabilities to further mitigate all risks to aviation security.”

The inspector general memo did not specify whether TSA agreed or disagreed with its recommendations. The inspector general’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Except for the summary released Tuesday, the report remains classified.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske has previously defended the air marshal program, saying it reduces the risks to aviation.

“I do think that the air marshals provide an important layer of security,” he told reporters on a conference call last May. He added that it is challenging “to measure the success of prevention.”

This is the third IG review of the air marshal program since late 2017, when it concluded that an unidentified part of the program’s work could be “discontinued” and the “funds could be put to better use.”

The summary did not reveal whether the two reports are describing the same waste. It also did not explain the vulnerabilities found in the more recent review nor explain how the funds are being misspent, describing the details as classified.

After its first report in November 2017, the then-inspector general, John Roth, told Congress that air marshal funding “gets wasted basically fighting the last war.”

The program has been plagued by other issues as well. A CNN report in November revealed more than 200 incidents of air marshals mishandling their weapons.

And in December, TSA said it would scale back a classified program known as Quiet Skies that targeted American citizens who were not on terrorism watch lists or suspected of criminal activity. The program, first revealed by The Boston Globe, involved marshals keeping detailed track of passenger behavior, such as meals eaten and restroom visits. TSA said marshals would no longer submit a report to intelligence agencies if the passengers they’re observing do nothing suspicious on a flight.