As the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to expand the deployment of its Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) Teams, it is also increasingly mentioning Federal Air Marshals (FAM) as part of the agency’s ground based, non-airport focused, and security operation.
Looking past the legally questionable aspects of the TSA’s deployment of VIPR Teams, and that some within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) clearly believe VIPR Teams pose jurisdiction issues for the agency, the use of Federal Air Marshals within VIPR Teams poses from very real problems for the TSA. FAMs participating in VIPR Teams both pose operational security risks and place FAMs outside of their operational parameters.
Since the Federal Air Marshal Service was transferred from the Bureau of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the Transportation Security Administration on the 16th of October 2005, the TSA has maintained that the anonymity of Federal Air Marshals is paramount to the operational security of a FAM performing their duties and to the security of protecting civil aviation.
With the TSA placing such significance on the anonymity of FAMs, the agency’s decision to place them in a public role as part of an intentionally “visible” VIPR Team goes against its own policy.
A larger issue with the TSA’s deployment of FAMs in VIPR Teams, which are primarily deployed in non-airport environments, is that the wording in Public Law 107-71, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, the very law that created the TSA, seems to restrict FAMs from operating outside of a role directly related to the protection of civil aviation.
Nowhere within the Aviation and Transportation Security Act are Federal Air Marshals designated to operate outside of a direct civil aviation security role, as per Section 105 Deployment of Federal Air Marshals, § 44917. Deployment of Federal air marshals, found on page 10 of the Act of Congress, signed into law by President George W. Bush on the 19th of November 2001.
While the TSA does state FAMs perform limited non-civil aviation security, “In addition, [Federal Air Marshals] are also distributed among other law enforcement and homeland security liaison assignments during times of heightened alert or special national events,” VIPR Teams are deployed regardless of a heightened state of a alert and are not considered a special national event. Furthermore, FAMs operating in liaison assignments and at national events are in a non-visible role, thus are not a risk to their vital anonymity.
Presently all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) references relating to the funding, training and deployment of Federal Air Marshals are that they operate in a role promoting “confidence in the nation’s civil aviation system through the effective deployment of Federal Air Marshals to detect, deter, and defeat hostile acts targeting U.S. air carriers, airports, passengers, and crews,” as per Public Law 107-71, SEC. 105. Deployment of Federal Air Marshals, § 44917. Deployment of Federal air marshals … however TSA VIPR Teams do not secure the nations civil aviation system, and to not provide security from hostile acts targets U.S. air carriers, airports, passengers and crews.
While Federal Air Marshals rarely get to carry out their duties in-flight, they play a vital role in aviation security. Squandering such a specially trained force of federal agents, especially in a role that violates an agency’s own policy for operational security, neither enhances security or places the TSA in a position of fiscal responsibility regarding its human security assets as the Government works to scale back its expenditures.