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Agency won’t release air marshal report

A federal report about problems at a Department of Homeland Security office in Las Vegas has proven difficult to obtain, according to an Arizona congresswoman who recently sought a copy of the document.

The investigation of the local field office of the Federal Air Marshal Service was completed several years ago and is considered a key piece of evidence in whistle-blower retaliation cases filed by former Las Vegas-based air marshals who were terminated or resigned from the agency.

To date, DHS has declined to release the report, which has been the subject of several Freedom of Information Act requests, saying only that it is 575 pages in length.

The mystery surrounding the report heightened last month when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, said she had attempted without success to see the outcome of the investigation.

Giffords made her request on behalf of Craig Sawyer, a Tucson resident who was a supervisor in the Las Vegas air marshal office from 2002 to 2004. Sawyer, an ex-Navy SEAL and one of the agency’s original 33 air marshals before its massive expansion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, resigned under pressure after complaining about mismanagement of the local field office. Most of the top Las Vegas officials from that time period are no longer with the agency.

The federal government is still deciding what portions of the report are public record, said Catrina Pavlik-Keenan, FOIA officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversaw the air marshal service during the period in which the investigation was conducted.

The air marshal service, which today is part of the Transportation Security Administration, employs agents who provide armed protection on commercial flights. Among the complaints of Sawyer and other air marshals was that they were required to meet a monthly quota of reports labeling certain airline passengers as suspicious.

"Any of us who stood up and said why certain policies didn’t make sense were deemed undesirable," Sawyer said in a phone interview. "After I was forced out, (department) investigators, against all pressures, came in and did an investigation that was by all accounts thorough and in good faith. All we want is to see the report."

In an e-mail to Sawyer last month, Ron Barber, Giffords’ district director, said the findings of the report could help restore the careers of air marshals who were fired or felt pressured to leave government service.

P. Jeffrey Black, a former air marshal whose complaint to DHS triggered the investigation of the local field office, has fought for years to see its results.

"The release of this report is in the public’s best interest," said Black, who is president of the Nevada chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "The flying public has a right to know when there is a lack of accountability in its government — most importantly in aviation security."

Last week, Black filed a federal lawsuit against DHS alleging the department has violated the FOIA act by withholding the report.

Much of the recent attention paid to the TSA has centered on a new policy of aggressively patting down passengers going through security. But the air marshal service is no stranger to controversy. A Review-Journal story in 2008 examined how Las Vegas air marshals who have run afoul of the law were treated less harshly than agents who filed whistle-blower disclosures about alleged waste, fraud and abuse.

Tom Devine, legal director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, said alleged misconduct in the Las Vegas field office, even if it occurred several years ago, needs to come to light.

"The report could expose the secret history of a government agency that may have set the pace for betraying the public trust," he said.

Devine said federal employees lack adequate recourse against retaliation and called on Congress to pass a bill that addresses that issue. Devine’s group represents former Las Vegas-based air marshal Robert MacLean, who has spent nearly five years challenging his dismissal from the TSA for revealing a plan to cut back security on flights during a time when the agency was warning of a heightened risk of terrorist attacks using commercial planes.

Tom Brede, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Reid is in favor of giving whistle-blowers added protections: "Senator Reid supports the Whistle Blower Protection Enhancement Act and is working with the lead sponsor of the bill to establish a path for moving it forward with bipartisan support in the lame duck session."

Last year, Reid’s office called on the White House to review MacLean’s case and also that of Spencer Pickard, who was once employed by the air marshal service in Las Vegas.

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404.

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