Are Federal Air Marshals Really Needed?

The Transportation Security Administration calls the marshals an important layer of security, but they never have faced a true terror threat on a flight. Air marshals themselves were arrested 148 times over a decade.

Federal air marshals “are the last line of defense on board an aircraft,” says trainer Mike LaFrance, but some lawmakers and critics in watchdog agencies are asking whether the program that peaked at nearly $1 billion a year and never has caught a single terrorist on board a plane is really needed, USA Today reports. The program has existed under a variety of names and agencies for 57 years, and it expanded significantly after the 9/11 hijackings. Air marshals can’t be on every plane and they haven’t faced a real terror threat during an actual flight. Transportation Security Administration head David Pekoske called the program “a terrific organization” that performs a stressful job under difficult circumstances.

TSA calls the service an important layer of security that begins when a passenger buys a ticket and goes through a database search against no-fly lists and checkpoint screening at airports. The prospect that an air marshal could be on a specific flight is a deterrent to would-be attackers by itself, TSA says. Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) would like to abolish the program that he said had about 4,000 air marshals in 2009 and averaged a total 4.2 arrests per year during the first seven years. He calls the program “the most needless, useless agency.” Air marshals themselves were arrested 148 times from November 2002 to February 2012, according to a report by ProPublica based on TSA documents. Air marshals were also charged with more than 5,000 cases of misconduct during that period, including 1,200 cases of lost equipment and 950 missed flights, the report said. USA Today describes the training that air marshals receive.