The director of the Federal Air Marshal Service is warning that a criminal trial in Britain could have serious implications for the agency’s international mission, including the possibility of its agents being barred from some overseas flights.
An air marshal identified in court only as JFB, 42, from Massachusetts, is accused of sexually assaulting a 23-year-old Royal Navy worker in January 2008 while she was unconscious after drinking too much alcohol with the accused and other air marshals.
“The impact of these charges on the reputation and operations of the Federal Air Marshal Service is serious,” Director Robert Bray said in a memo that was obtained by The Washington Times.
“It is likely that sustained negative publicity could result in host-country reviews of our procedures, not only in the United Kingdom, but very possibly by other host governments,” the memo said.
The Times requested comment from Mr. Bray about the memo but did not receive a reply in time for publication.
American air marshals began protecting flights on U.S. aircraft into several British airports after the August 2006 arrest of several men there who have since been convicted of an attempted terrorist attack on planes bound for the U.S.
The stepped-up security was initially protested by British pilots because American air marshals carry guns.
Asked about the potential backlash from the trial, one Homeland Security Department official said the main concern is the marshals’ continued ability to board and protect flights.
“They don’t have to let us in, that’s the bottom line,” the official said. “That would be a very strong concern, in fact, to not cover flights.”
A British Embassy spokesman said the embassy was not inclined to speak on the matter while the trial is ongoing.
U.S. air marshals protect flights into Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and Heathrow, and to several other nations in Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.
Nelson Minerly, spokesman for the Air Marshal Service, released a statement from its parent agency, the Transportation Security Administration, that said the accused marshal was suspended without pay and forced to surrender his gun and law enforcement credentials when the investigation began in January 2008.
“TSA cooperated fully with the London Metropolitan Police, Crown Prosecution Service and DHS Office of Inspector General during the investigation of this incident,” the statement said.
“TSA will await the final report of the inspector general and the findings of the proceedings regarding this incident to determine whether misconduct or violations of agency policy may have occurred. If the allegations are proven, TSA will take appropriate disciplinary action,” the statement said.
According to the Mail Online, which is covering this week’s trial, the victim had drinks with the accused and five other air marshals at the bar in their hotel near Heathrow Airport. The victim says she was covered in bruises the next morning, and the hotel manager called police.
The air marshal says the sex was consensual, and that the woman made the allegation because she missed her morning flight to Miami, where she was to meet the ship on which she worked.
Police found the woman’s pants hidden in a lamp stand in the air marshal’s room.
The air marshal was on off-duty status when the events occurred. There are no rules prohibiting marshals from consuming alcohol when they are off duty.
However, Mr. Bray told his agents in the memo issued Monday, “This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Federal Air Marshal Service.
“I am personally and professionally embarrassed and outraged by these allegations,” Mr. Bray said. “It is imperative that every FAM maintains the highest level of professionalism while deployed abroad as a representative of the United States government.”
Mr. Bray, who took over the agency six months after the incident occurred, also warned marshals to be wary.
“In light of the negative publicity surrounding this incident, FAMs may encounter instances of unfavorable attention,” his memo said.