After scathing report, will federal air marshal program be grounded?

Is it time to end the air marshal program?

The director of the Federal Air Marshal Service is responding to a scathing New York Times report that claims the organization has issues with alcohol abuse, harassment, and low morale in its ranks. The service was created in 1961 and expanded after the September 11 attacks. It has about 3,000 officers and an annual budget of $800 million and critics say it needs to be reformed – or possibly shut down.

Their mission is to keep an airliner from being used as a weapon and doing that requires highly specialized training. But the agency has been faulted for not being able to show how effective a deterrent it is to terrorism, and lawmakers say this latest controversy begs the question: is this a layer of security worth paying for.

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Air marshals train for worst case scenarios in mock cabins. CBS News

"In my mind, success is the security of the traveling public. And the fact that we haven't had any major incidents since 9/11," Rod Allison, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, told CBS News' Kris Van Cleave.

About half of its force is military veterans working undercover as passengers charged with securing the nation's 42,000 daily domestic and international flights. They are not on every flight and were not on board for the failed shoe bomber or unsuccessful underwear bomber.

"Well, I can't point to one that says this particular plot was disrupted." Allison said of how many in-flight terror plots have been stopped by air marshals. "Now we have seen a number of plots, obviously, over the years, of which the air marshal service has provided added security."

Next month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office will begin a review of the working environment at the agency dogged by complaints of low morale, harassment and alcohol abuse.

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Rod Allison CBS News

"Do I see where people get in trouble like any other large organization with alcohol? Absolutely. But do I see it as or do I think it's abuse? No, I do not," Allison said.

Last year an inspector general report found "limitations with…contributions to aviation security" and recommended shutting down some operations to better use resources.

Congressman John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, wants to shut down the program. 

"It's just money going down a rat hole and doing no good whatsoever," Duncan said. "If it was up to me we wouldn't still have them. Because I think it's the most needless, useless. wasteful organization in the federal government and that is saying a lot."

What isn't in question is the agencies focus on training. We were invited inside the agency's training center in Atlantic City. It's intense and not only highlights marksmanship but also quick decision making.

"At 37,000 feet, we can't call for backup, number one. And we're in such a confined space, we can't make mistakes," said firearms instructor Gary Decker. 

Michael LaFrance joined the air marshals after 9/11 and now helps run the agency's training center. Despite reinforced cockpit doors, increased vetting of passengers and armed pilots, LaFrance said air marshals provide an extra layer of defense when one of those security points fails. 

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Federal Air Marshal service firearms training CBS News


 "The armored cockpit doors, the other layers to security, there is fail points there. And the air marshals are there as the last line of the defense….And take control if there is a hostile act against an aircraft," LaFrance said.

The TSA administrator told "CBS This Morning" he does not see any "systemic problems" with the air marshal service and says those days are in the TSA's past. Air marshals have never had to engage a terrorist or a hijacker and the agency only makes a handful of arrests per year but says arrests aren't the main focus and marshals are called upon to deal with disruptive passengers every couple of weeks.