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GAO: Air marshal cuts had 'minimal' impact

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

Department of Homeland Security
Transportation Security Administration
General Accounting Office

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For the then-fledgling Department of Homeland Security, the news could not have broken at a worse time.

Last July, just one day after it warned that terrorists might be planning suicide hijackings of airliners, word leaked out that the department was cutting funds for the vaunted Federal Air Marshal Service, which places armed officers on planes to prevent such hijackings.

Congressional Democrats hastily called a press conference to condemn the cuts while a DHS spokesman told reporters there were no plans to cut the program or reduce the number of flights.

Now, eight months later, a new General Accounting Office report sheds new light on the imbroglio, and gives a rare behind-the-scenes look at the internal debate over the cuts.

The GAO -- the investigative arm of Congress -- concludes that the impact of the 20 percent budget cut was "minimal."

"The number of air marshals remained relatively constant over the fiscal year," the report says. "By the end of the period, the number of air marshals was only 1 percent lower than at the beginning of the year."

And while the number of air marshal missions decreased 22 percent during fiscal 2003, most of that reduction was due to factors other than the budget cuts, the Homeland Security Department told the GAO.

One factor was that almost 100 air marshals were "taken off-line" because their background clearances had not been completed.

A Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman told CNN some air marshals had been flying with "interim clearances" that included a criminal record check. "It is not like we had felons flying," spokesman Dave Adams said.

Half of the 100 air marshals have since been given clearances, and the other half are still in the process, he said.

A Democratic congressional staffer who reviewed the GAO report told CNN on condition of anonymity that the report shows the DHS was able to "cobble things together" during the 2003 fiscal year.

"I think it shows that DHS was able to keep them afloat, was able to avert a crisis. The question is how long?"

The staffer notes the GAO report says the actual number of on-board air marshals differed by 4 percent to 7 percent from anticipated numbers.

"Seven percent is a big reduction," she said.

The cuts affected the Federal Air Marshals Service's ability to hire and train new air marshals, she said.

The GAO report gives a rare glimpse at the debate inside the Department of Homeland Security at the time. While outwardly Homeland Security presented a united front, the Marshals Service and the Transportation Security Administration disagreed strongly on the likely impact of the cuts.

A Federal Air Marshals Service official asserted in memos the cuts would result in "significant to severe" operational impacts, suggesting long-haul flights would be cut by approximately 90 percent and thousands of domestic missions would be cut as well.

The TSA vigorously objected to that characterization. In the end, the Department of Homeland Security cut the Federal Air Marshals Service budget from $545 million to approximately $450 million.

Disagreements between the service and the Transportation Security Administration continued even after the budget cuts. The GAO said that during interviews with officials, both agencies disagreed on when the Federal Air Marshals Service was told of the cuts, whether it agreed to them, and about its ability to absorb the reductions.

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