Monday, Nov. 17, 2008 | 2:07 a.m.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government rapidly expanded its Air Marshals Service in an attempt to protect airlines and the public.
The service had 33 agents before 9/11 and now, under the Transportation Security Administration, it is believed to have between 3,000 and 4,000 agents. The number is classified.
Unfortunately, the government may have been too hasty in its rush to hire. An investigation by Pro Publica, a nonprofit journalism group, found that felony criminal charges have been filed against three dozen air marshals. Hundreds of others have been accused of wrongdoing, from drunken driving to serious policy violations.
In a story that ran in USA Today on Thursday, the group reported that agents have been charged with aiding a human-trafficking ring, smuggling cocaine and drug money and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.
In addition to criminal charges, agents have been accused of sleeping on planes, behaving in inappropriate ways and misusing or mishandling their firearms.
This year an internal memo warned that agents’ behavior overseas and on international flights could cause diplomatic problems.
Pro Publica’s investigation found that the government hired people who had criminal records or were under investigation for criminal acts. The service failed to do thorough background checks and missed — or ignored — obvious red flags.
Part of the problem is that as the agency has grown exponentially, the Air Marshals Service has loosened its hiring standards to fill the ranks.
Would-be agents no longer have to pass an advanced firearms test of accuracy in close quarters, which should be essential given that the marshals serve on airplanes, or pass psychological screenings. As well, the service has started hiring people with no law enforcement experience.
Failing to properly check applicants’ background and then hiring them to fly, fully armed, on airplanes is a recipe for disaster. Congress should make sure the agency cleans up its act and protects the flying public.