Feds Plan to Review Background Checks on Air Marshals

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Federal Air Marshal Service managers plan to review all employee background checks, but a spokesman said Wednesday the move was not related to a report released earlier this week that found the government does not hold air marshals to a high enough standard of conduct.

The decision to conduct the review was made prior to the release of the report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, said David Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service.

``We think it's the prudent thing to do, and if we find anyone who does not pass the adjudication process after we review all the files and does not meet the criteria that we've set, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken, up to and including dismissal,'' Adams said.

In a report released Monday, Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin wrote that many federal air marshals were granted access to classified information after displaying ``questionable judgment, irresponsibility and emotionally unstable behavior.''

In a written response, however, Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary, said an independent arbitrator reviewed background checks on 161 air marshals who were hired despite having minor offenses in their records. The arbitrator concluded that all but two cases had been handled properly, he said.

New standards and guidelines have been set for determining whether applicants are suitable to be air marshals, Hutchinson added.

Adams said it could take managers two months to review the background checks of those already hired, whose records are stored at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township. He declined to identify how many reviews must be completed, as the exact number of air marshals remains classified.

Thousands of air marshals were rushed into service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Marshals travel undercover, but pilots say they guard only a small percentage of daily flights.

The Federal Air Marshal Service did not receive the authority to determine the eligibility for its security clearances until December 2003, Adams said. It was previously handled by the Transportation Safety Administration, he said.

Background investigations are now subject to law enforcement criteria instead of the less stringent standard used in the past, Adams noted.

Disciplinary problems with the air marshals arose in 2003. The report said managers within the Federal Air Marshal Service subsequently found that some had financial, employment and criminal problems in the past.

Of 161 cases, 62 had been accused of domestic violence or assault, drunken driving or sexual harassment, and half of those were arrested at least twice in the past decade. One applicant who was offered a job as an air marshal had been denied a gun permit by the state of New York for undisclosed reasons.

Ervin's report also said discipline is sometimes lax in the air marshal service. Between February and October 2002, there were 753 documented reports of sleeping on duty, lying, testing positive for alcohol or illegal drugs while on the job or losing weapons, the report said. In many cases, air marshals were suspended with pay.

Hutchinson said many accusations of misconduct were less severe _ for example, for rudeness or tardiness _ than the inspector general reported. He said 101 air marshals were fired between March 2002 and March 2004. Thirty-two more quit rather than be fired, he said.