Aviation Security:

Federal Air Marshal Service Could Benefit from Improved Planning and Controls

GAO-06-203: Published: Nov 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 28, 2005.

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The U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) has undergone a number of changes in recent years, including a 2003 transfer from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau (ICE), and a 2005 transfer from ICE back to TSA. A key aspect of federal air marshals' operating procedures is the discreet movement through airports as they check in for their flight, transit screening checkpoints, and board the aircraft. This report discusses FAMS's (1) transfer to ICE and key practices that could facilitate its return to TSA, and (2) management of mission-related incidents that affect air marshals' ability to operate discreetly.

DHS made limited progress in achieving the intended objectives of its transfer of FAMS to ICE, which included (1) developing a "surge" capacity through cross-training ICE agents, and (2) enhancing federal air marshals' career opportunities. Specifically, DHS had developed some surge capacity by cross-training a number of ICE agents but suspended these efforts in October 2004 in response to congressional concerns that the cross-training was an ineffective use of resources and training. DHS indicated that it would continue to support the surge effort, but had not determined whether and when it would resume cross-training to support this initiative. Further, although DHS recognized that federal air marshals' career opportunities were limited, it had not developed plans to expand them through investigative or other duties. Moreover, DHS had not determined how these transition objectives would be met because it had not developed an overall strategy to include implementation goals, measures, and a timeline to help target performance shortfalls and suggest midcourse corrections--a key practice for a successful transformation. DHS also had not developed a communication strategy to create shared expectations and report related progress on the transition to employees and other stakeholders--another key practice. With its return of FAMS to TSA, DHS's prior experience in transferring FAMS to ICE can provide useful information on key practices to consider in effecting a successful transition. FAMS lacks adequate management controls to help ensure that mission-related incidents that affect air marshals' ability to operate discreetly are recorded, tracked, and addressed. For example, FAMS has not developed a written policy that establishes criteria for when and how federal air marshals are to complete mission reports on incidents they encounter during their missions. In addition, FAMS lacks adequate controls to ensure that the outcome of actions taken to address these incidents was communicated to the federal air marshals who originally reported them. Not providing such information may serve to discourage federal air marshals from submitting future reports. FAMS officials have acknowledged that FAMS lacks written policies to govern the use and management of mission reports and stated that FAMS plans to develop such policies in the near future.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To preserve their anonymity on covered flights, federal air marshals are to blend in with passengers by dressing appropriately and performing their duties discreetly. In past years, air marshals frequently asserted that the Federal Air Marshal Service's (FAMS) check-in and boarding policy and procedures compromised their anonymity by requiring repeated interactions with airline personnel. In our September 2005 report (GAO-05-884SU), we stated that FAMS did not have adequate controls to manage information regarding incidents federal air marshals encounter during their missions that could compromise their anonymity. Absent these controls, FAMS did not have a full account of reported incidents necessary to determine operational areas in need of improvement. We recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to (1) develop a means for recording all incidents reported to the Mission Operations Center that affect air marshals' ability to operate discreetly and criteria for determining which incidents require federal air marshals to complete a mission report and (2) establish written policies and procedures for reviewing and addressing reported incidents. In response, FAMS issued a new written directive on October 18, 2005, which established policies and procedures for reporting and managing air marshals' mission incidents. In November 2005, GAO responded that we had reviewed the new directive and concluded that it addressed this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the Federal Air Marshal Service's management of incidents that affect federal air marshals' ability to operate discreetly during their missions, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to establish written policies and procedures for reviewing and addressing reported incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Federal Air Marshal Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Through use of a database created in fiscal year 2006 to track mission incidents, the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) senior executive staff noted that analysis and monitoring are conducted daily of reported incidents, including those that could compromise the ability of air marshals to operate discreetly. The first management report detailing overall incident patterns and trends was produced from this system in July 2008. However, as of this recommendation's update in fiscal year 2009, we deemed it too early to determine whether the revised policy and procedures were having the desired effect of reducing the number of incidents involving exposure of air marshals' identities. At that time, FAMS officials stated that the management reports would be produced quarterly to allow management to better review patterns or trends regarding mission incidents and the effectiveness of the new policy and procedures. Based on our August 2010 contact with Transportation Security Administration and FAMS officials, FAMS has now demonstrated consistent utilization of the quarterly reports generated through the database to analyze patterns and trends in the data. In summary, FAMS has satisfied this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the Federal Air Marshal Service's management of incidents that affect federal air marshals' ability to operate discreetly during their missions, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to develop a means for tracking and retrieving data on mission reports to enable FAMS to analyze and monitor reported and systemic incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Federal Air Marshal Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To preserve their anonymity on covered flights, federal air marshals are to blend in with passengers by dressing appropriately and performing their duties discreetly. In past years, air marshals frequently asserted that the Federal Air Marshal Service's (FAMS) check-in and boarding policy and procedures compromised their anonymity by requiring repeated interactions with airline personnel. In our September 2005 report (GAO-05-884SU), we stated that FAMS did not have adequate controls to manage information regarding incidents federal air marshals encounter during their missions that could compromise their anonymity. Absent these controls, FAMS did not have a full account of reported incidents necessary to determine operational areas in need of improvement. We recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to (1) develop a means for recording all incidents reported to the Mission Operations Center that affect air marshals' ability to operate discreetly and criteria for determining which incidents require federal air marshals to complete a mission report and (2) establish written policies and procedures for reviewing and addressing reported incidents. In response, FAMS issued a new written directive on October 18, 2005, which established policies and procedures for reporting and managing air marshals' mission incidents. In November 2005, we responded that we had reviewed the new directive and concluded that it addressed this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the Federal Air Marshal Service's management of incidents that affect federal air marshals' ability to operate discreetly during their missions, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to develop a means for recording all incidents reported to the Mission Operations Center that affect federal air marshals' ability to operate discreetly and criteria for determining which incidents require federal air marshals to complete a mission report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Federal Air Marshal Service

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Transporation Security Administration (TSA), in conjunction with Federal Air Marshal Service officials, were unable to find documentation or any other evidence to ascertain whether or not the Department of Homeland Security or any of its component agencies had taken actions to address this recommendation. TSA added that they believe this recommendation is no longer relevant since the air marshals have already been fully reintegrated into TSA.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has the planning framework necessary to guide and monitor its efforts to merge the Federal Air Marshal Service with the Transportation Security Administration, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should adopt key practices that have led to successful transformation efforts within public and private sector organizations by developing a communication strategy to share expectations and report related progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), in conjunction with Federal Air Marshal Service officials, were unable to find documentation or any other evidence to ascertain whether or not the Department of Homeland Security, or any of its component agencies, had taken actions to address this recommendation. TSA added that they believe this recommendation is no longer relevant since the air marshals have already been fully reintegrated into TSA.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Department of Homeland Security has the planning framework necessary to guide and monitor its efforts to merge the Federal Air Marshal Service with the Transportation Security Administration, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should adopt key practices that have led to successful transformation efforts within public and private sector organizations by developing an overall strategy with implementation goals and a timeline to build momentum and show progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) depends on mission reports to provide a full accounting of incidents affecting air marshals in the performance of their duties and identify operational areas in need of improvement. In November 2005, we reported that FAMS lacked internal controls to help ensure that the results of actions taken to address incidents identified in mission reports are communicated to the federal air marshals who originally filed the reports (GAO-06-203). We also found that this lack of communication may discourage air marshals from submitting future reports. We recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to establish a means for providing feedback on the status and outcome of FAMS mission reports to the federal air marshals who submit them. In March 2008, FAMS issued an addendum to its mission reporting policy that addressed this recommendation. The addendum specified that the resolution of mission incidents must be forwarded to the original reporting air marshal and detailed the process for doing so. As a result, FAMS management is maintaining an open line of communication with air marshals to encourage reporting all incidents affecting the performance of their jobs, thereby allowing management to maintain visibility over these incidents and act on them, where appropriate.

    Recommendation: To facilitate the Federal Air Marshal Service's management of incidents that affect federal air marshals' ability to operate discreetly during their missions, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should direct the Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service to establish a means for providing feedback on the status and outcome of FAMS mission reports to the federal air marshals who submit them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Federal Air Marshal Service

 

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