Their mission is to protect airline passengers from acts of terror on U.S. flights. But in a special investigation, former and current air marshals told CNN that the number of marshals assigned to police flights is so low that the federal agency overseeing them has drastically lowered its firearms and psychological testing standards just so it can qualify new hires.
More than a dozen current and former marshals said that so many federal air marshals have resigned and are not being replaced, airport screeners are being employed to fill the dwindling ranks.
But the Transportation Security Administration says that's not true and that the rate of those leaving has remained at 6.5 percent a year since 2001.
A former federal air marshal and weapons trainer who left the agency in 2006 after four years of service said the situation was so bad that managers at his office fudged the numbers by assigning marshals to short, no-risk flights.
The former marshal said that was done to make it appear that the percentage of manned flights was higher than it really was.
"I think it's a national disgrace,'' said the former marshal, who asked not to be identified because he still works in law enforcement.
The Federal Air Marshal Service was greatly expanded in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, when flights to "high-risk cities" such as New York were given special air marshal manpower priority.
Assignments are "intelligence-driven" and "risk-based," the Federal Air Marshal Service said in an e-mail. But many of the marshals interviewed said it had little to do with intelligence or risk and was more about a numbers game.
"We were questioning how these flights could be intelligence-driven when we were flying from San Diego to Phoenix on another leg to Las Vegas back to Phoenix back to San Diego," the former marshal said. "It's not a threat flying on Southwest Airlines to Las Vegas."
Faced with fewer qualified applicants, current air marshals said that recruiting standards have been lowered. Air marshals still patrolling flights also said the loss of so many experienced agents has led the TSA to hire airport screeners as air marshals.
Agency spokesman Greg Alter said in an e-mail that only "a very small number of air marshals started their careers as Transportation Security Officers [airport screeners]."
Alter added that all "candidates receive the best training available and enter the workforce with the skill and expertise needed to protect the traveling public."
In July 2006, the Federal Air Marshal Service sent out a memo saying that new hires would no longer face mandatory psychological testing, unless the recruit admits that he or she has been treated for a mental condition.
TSA said it revised but did not "degrade" the psychological testing of applicants using the application and interaction with others in the service to determine mental competency.
On firearms training, a former weapons instructor with air marshals said that when recruits could not pass the tough federal tactical pistol course, known as the TPC, it was replaced with a less rigorous shooting test the potential recruits could pass.
"The TPC went away very quickly because they couldn't get enough people through it to pass," the former air marshal trainer said. "So they dropped the tactical pistol course and went to the practical pistol course, which is a standard federal law enforcement course. It's not nearly as quick or as dynamic as TPC."