It is supposed to be a last line of defense against a Sept. 11-style attack, but a federal program that puts armed undercover guards on commercial airliners is in such disarray that it does little to deter terrorists, many of its employees tell the New York Times and is being investigated by Congress. Alcohol abuse among some in the Federal Air Marshal Service is so rampant that the Transportation Security Administration has had to monitor whether the armed guards show up for their flights sober. Female and minority air marshals said they faced discrimination at work, including being subjected to sexually explicit messages and racist jokes and memes sent on government-issued cellphones. Other air marshals said they were fired or threatened with termination for minor infractions, while misconduct by managers was overlooked.
Just 22 percent of the marshals thought their leaders maintained “high standards of honesty and integrity,” according to a federal employee survey last year, one of the lowest rankings among agencies. Congress has asked the Government Accountability Office, its investigative arm, to review the workplace complaints raised by air marshals. The air marshals view their jobs as crucial to efforts to protect airplanes and airports from terrorist attacks. Interviews with more than two dozen former and current federal air marshals describe an agency in crisis. Burnout is high. Morale is low. Some of those interviewed said they were aware of colleagues who had committed suicide or attempted it. Nearly all described job-related health problems; one marshal said he had depression, sleep apnea and dizzy spells.