Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Demoralized air marshals who had planned to leave the agency in droves to escape what they described as mismanagement say they are in a holding pattern until a new boss is named.

Federal Air Marshal Service Director Thomas D. Quinn has said he will retire effective Feb. 3.

Before his announcement earlier this month, hundreds of air marshals were applying for U.S. Border Patrol jobs, agents said. The Border Patrol is luring the highly trained marshals to fill 1,900 positions created by Congress.

“It’s very telling that marshals are interested in going to Border Patrol at a lower pay grade, a very revealing reflection of low morale,” said Jon Adler, vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

The association said yesterday that members are “encouraged” that the Bush administration will name a director “who will bring stability and unity back to an agency that has been consistently wrought with internal dissension and low morale.”

Edmund S. “Kip” Hawley, director of the Transportation Security Administration, has created a task force to search for a new director. Homeland Security officials said the internal search committee includes senior leadership, human resources specialists, law-enforcement officials and TSA officials. However, the final decision is up to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who reorganized the department and deleted the federal air marshal director position as a political appointment.

Mr. Adler said marshals are endorsing Don Strange, the former special agent in charge of the Atlanta office, to succeed Mr. Quinn.

“Some guys are hanging on to see who comes in as the director. We’re trying to be positive in our communications with Chertoff to make sure the next director has credibility, experience, and respects the air marshals as stakeholders in the agency, and are willing to listen to suggestions,” Mr. Adler said.

Mr. Strange, a 35-year law-enforcement officer who spent most of his career at the Drug Enforcement Administration, has handled high-profile cases. He investigated the 1976 death of billionaire businessman Howard Hughes and was one of the arresting officers of Timothy Leary, who became a 1960s counterculture icon by promoting the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Mr. Strange joined the Federal Air Marshal Service in 2002 but fell out of favor with Mr. Quinn. His contract was canceled abruptly after he challenged a dress code, boarding procedures and other agency policies that marshals described as reckless and retaliatory.

Congress legislated a change in the dress code, which Mr. Chertoff forced on the agency when he took over the Homeland Security Department last year, officials said.

Many marshals say they do not know Mr. Strange personally, but his support grew through word-of-mouth from the hundreds of agents assigned to the Atlanta office he once directed.

Agents describe the current management as heavy-handed and say officials penalize new or creative ideas and have critics investigated.

“What kind of morale do you have when internal investigations are used as a tool to keep air marshals from speaking freely?” said one who asked to remain anonymous.

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