Flight reports by the Federal Air Marshal Service show that federal agents were on less than 10 percent of the nation's flights in December, a number several air marshals say was inflated to make it appear to Congress that commercial air travel is better protected than it is.
"The numbers reported to headquarters come back higher than originally reported and are sometimes upwards of double the number of what is actually flown," an air marshal said. "Everyone knows they are padding the numbers."
FAMS flight reports for December, obtained by The Washington Times, show air marshals were on about 9.4 percent of the nearly 30,800 daily domestic and international flights.
But the marshals say that figure is impossible, because more flights are reported as having armed agents aboard than the service's 21 field offices can deploy.
The marshals say the numbers are manipulated upward to make it appear as if the agency has met staffing levels that Congress mandated.
Congress members and officials at the Government Accountability Office are the only people outside the Homeland Security Department privy to the number of air marshals and information about the flights they protect.
FAMS spokesman Dave Adams initially refused to comment on the methods used to count missions unless a page of the monthly reports containing the data was faxed to him for verification.
"When CBS had accusations about President Bush's reserve-duty time, CBS gave them the courtesy to review the document before commenting on it, and I would like the same courtesy," Mr. Adams said.
After reviewing the document, he only said: "For obvious security and operational reasons, we never comment on the specific locations or numbers of federal air marshals employed around the country on any given day."
"At the same time, we can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the information provided to reporters purporting to detail the locations and deployment of air marshals," he said.
FAMS has never divulged the number of armed agents protecting planes, except to say that it is in the thousands.
The December reports include the number of flights from all major airports on which air marshals depart, which The Times did not reveal as requested by the Homeland Security Department because of national security reasons.
The Times received some of the flight reports on Monday, the day U.S. intelligence and security officials said new information indicates that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has asked Iraq-based terrorists to focus future attacks on targets inside the United States.
The officials said al Qaeda wants to rival its September 11 attacks, in which almost 3,000 people were killed in terrorist plane hijackings.
According to the flight reports, the number of missions air marshals flew on any given day ranged from a low of slightly more than 2,000 to as many as 3,400.
"The actual flight numbers are artificially high to give a perception that the aviation transportation system is actually better protected by air marshals than what it is. But we're suffering from shortfalls in manpower because of mass exodus of marshals in the last two years," the first marshal said.
The marshals also say the number is inflated because agents who leave the service but remain employed by the federal government and can be used by FAMS are still counted as marshals, as are Border Patrol agents used during peak travel periods.
At one time, FAMS employed the 4,000 agents mandated by Congress, but the number has been halved, marshals say. Based on the number of guns issued, there are about 2,200 marshals stationed nationwide to fly seven days a week.
During Senate hearings on the September 11 commission report in the fall, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, questioned whether there has been a decrease in the number of air marshals protecting aircraft and demanded that FAMS provide her office with data.
Mrs. Boxer's office did not return calls last night.
Marshals always travel in teams -- a minimum of two agents and sometimes as many as four per plane. This means a minimum of 1,100 teams protect domestic and international flights. With sick days, regular days off, vacation and medical leave, it is statistically impossible to cover even the minimum number of flights listed by the report on any given day, the marshals say.
"The numbers don't add up; it's way too much," a marshal said. "Several field offices have complained about it and were told to shut up. This is a scam."
More than 2,600 flights were listed as covered on Christmas Eve, 2,039 on Christmas Day and 2,893 on New Year's Eve.
"The numbers are impossible," said another air marshal.