Exclusive

Federal Air Marshals Say TSA Separated Them From Families During Harvey

With the hurricane closing in, agents asked to return to their families in Houston. They were refused.

LINTHICUM, MD - AUGUST 26: A television monitor at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport shows inbound flights to BWI on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008 in Linthicum, MD. A computer malfunction at a Federal Aviation Administration facility in Georgia Tuesday caused widespread flight delays. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
LINTHICUM, MD - AUGUST 26: A television monitor at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport shows inbound flights to BWI on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008 in Linthicum, MD. A computer malfunction at a Federal Aviation Administration facility in Georgia Tuesday caused widespread flight delays. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Twenty-six federal air marshals based in Houston were not allowed to return to their families after Hurricane Harvey hit late last week, according to an association that represents the law enforcement agents.

In a scathing letter from the Air Marshal Association sent out to members Tuesday night, John Casaretti, the union’s president, blasted top officials and vowed to help its members with any “issues stemming from management’s determination to needlessly put you in danger or separate you from your family in a time of need.”

A copy of the letter was reviewed by Foreign Policy.

The letter said multiple conference calls were held on Tuesday with congressional staffers about the Harvey response. The calls between the union leadership and staffers involved discussions about misallocation of resources before and during the storm.

“We put them in touch with FAMs [federal air marshals] directly impacted by poor agency decisions, and provided emails and supporting documents to congressional investigators,” the letter reads. “They were amazed that 26 FAMs were not home to take care of their families because of amateurish leadership choices.”

Two air marshal sources familiar with the situation said most of their Houston-based colleagues were flying domestically, with a smaller group assigned to international missions, as the storm was building. Air marshals who made requests to return to Houston to prepare for the storm and make sure their families were safe were denied, according to several sources.

Casaretti did not immediately return requests for comment.

Several sources who spoke with FP said the 26 agents were stranded with no plan to get them home and no protocol in place. The director of flight operations told the stranded Houston FAMs that they could not return home or fly to Dallas to try to rent a car. Instead, they were assigned to additional flights.

“They’re kicking people off flights to get FAMs on flights with no threat,” said a source in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “They keep flying them around for no reason, with no threat. Why are you building an entire schedule for us when we’re trying to get home?”

Air marshals also blamed management for a series of miscalculations about the storm prior to Harvey’s landfall. “This whole situation is due to poor leadership and bad leadership selection by poor leadership,” said one air marshal.

“They didn’t get FAMS home to protect their families and have them flying because they can’t get home now,” the air marshal told FP. “They knew the storm was coming but kept them out in the field, and now the airports are closed, and these FAMs can’t get home.”

James Gregory, a TSA spokesman, told FP that the agency was aware of the concerns and had been working to address them.

“TSA did everything possible to get our federal air marshals back to their families as quickly as possible given the extreme conditions that developed on the ground after they departed on their missions, and all 26 Houston-based FAMs that were on duty during the storm will be back in Houston today,” Gregory said. “Our federal air marshals play an incredibly important part in transportation security, and the missions they flew were critical, just as all FAMs missions are critical.”

Photo credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. She worked previously as a national security reporter at The Intercept and breaking news/investigative reporter for FoxNews.com.

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