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Air Marshals Say Discrimination and Retaliation Hinders Their Mission to Stop Terrorists

Federal air marshals have long whispered about their complaints relating to a culture of discrimination, but now two recent cases are bringing public attention to the issue.

Since the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, Congress and the Obama administration have reviewed many aspects of aviation security, and Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, has called for increasing the number of federal air marshals.

But one area that hasn't received much scrutiny is the atmosphere inside the Federal Air Marshal Service, where some in the rank and file say discrimination and retaliation distracts them from their mission of stopping terrorists and protecting passengers. Air marshals have long whispered about their complaints, but now two recent cases are bringing public attention to the issue.

The Transportation Security Administration, the parent agency of the air marshal service, is investigating allegations of discrimination in the Orlando field office after several air marshals complained that supervisors created a "Jeopardy"-style game board with derogatory nicknames for African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals and veterans as a way to mete out discipline and undesirable assignments.

In Cincinnati, an attorney representing six air marshals asked a federal judge for a restraining order against TSA on Jan. 12. He said supervisors opened a disciplinary investigation against one client after she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit (PDF) and then intimidated witnesses as they prepared to testify on the woman’s behalf.

ProPublica has interviewed or obtained complaints from 85 current and former air marshals in nearly every one of the agency's 21 field offices over the past year and half. They all told similar stories of being treated unfairly in promotions, assignments or discipline by supervisors who target those who speak up or don't fit a certain mold. Some air marshals who tried to address their complaints through proper channels say they felt demoralized by the process.

"It's gone on in Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati – that pretty much covers every area of the United States," said Shawn McCullers, a former Philadelphia air marshal who sued the agency for racial discrimination in 2006 when it couldn't find a desk job for him after he developed blood clots in his legs and could no longer fly.

"You've got agents out there who have consented to put their lives on the line for the American public who need to be at their best mentally and physically all the time," he said. "But always playing in the back of my mind is that I don't have the full support of my agency."

Robert Bray, the director of the air marshal service, declined to be interviewed.

The agency's spokesman, Nelson Minerly, confirmed the Orlando investigation and said in an e-mail: "The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is dedicated to ensuring all employees are treated in a fair and lawful manner. Accordingly, TSA takes all allegations of misconduct seriously."

The number of people filing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints in the TSA is about average compared with eight other law enforcement agencies.

The EEOC couldn't provide a breakdown of complaints from only air marshal service employees.

But air marshals told ProPublica their agency has a serious problem with discrimination, in part because of the clash of law enforcement cultures that occurred during its rapid buildup after 9/11.

Read our investigation into screening and disciplinary problems in the Federal Air Marshal Service. (ProPublica)ProPublica has previously reported on screening and disciplinary problems at the agency, which now has an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 air marshals (the official number is classified). On Monday, President Obama unveiled a budget (PDF) providing increased funding for air marshals on international flights.

In a report last year, congressional investigators with the Government Accountability Office said that Bray and his predecessor, Dana Brown, had made progress in addressing work force complaints. Since 2006, administrators have held listening sessions, formed working groups to address specific issues and created an internal Web site where air marshals can provide anonymous feedback.