WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department has been ordered to investigate whether it fails to protect the identities of its undercover air marshals from flight passengers, as alleged by a whistleblowing employee.
Air marshals work undercover on high-risk and random flights to stop terrorists or other disruptive passengers from overtaking the plane.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel ordered the investigation after finding a "substantial likelihood" that Homeland Security policy may have violated laws, resulted in mismanagement or put its employees in danger.
It was not immediately clear how air marshals' identities has been revealed.
"You alleged that the failure to protect covert aviation security operations weakens the core (Federal Air Marshal program) mission," U.S. Office of Special Counsel attorney Karen P. Gorman wrote in an Aug. 10 letter to air marshal Frank Terreri that was released Thursday.
"We have provided the secretary 60 days to conduct an investigation of these allegations and report back to us," Gorman wrote.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was notified of the investigation in a letter from the Special Counsel's office "and we are currently reviewing it," said spokesman Jarrod Agen.
"The safety of our employees is one of our utmost concerns," Agen said. He said Homeland Security "has already taken several steps to address these issues."
Terreri has filed a lawsuit against Chertoff and the department, claiming his free speech rights were restricted after complaining to a colleague about a magazine story discussing operational details of the air marshal program.
Terreri was removed from flight duty and placed under investigation for six months, from October 2004 to April 2005, and returned after he filed the lawsuit.
The Government Accountability Project, which champions whistleblowers, called the Special Counsel letter "a real wake-up call for Homeland Security."