Law enforcement officers of the Federal Aviation Administration are defending the agency's security chief, who is resigning as a result of bureaucratic struggles following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The agency announced last week that Michael A. Canavan--a retired three-star Army general--would be leaving by mutual agreement with FAA Administrator Jane Garvey after 10 months on the job.
People familiar with the situation say Canavan had upset his superiors by resisting a request to place air marshals on commercial flights being taken by Cabinet members to rebuild public confidence in air travel. Canavan felt the agents would be better employed on other flights deemed to be "high risk."
"He didn't want to play the political game--he wanted to do the right thing," said Brian Sullivan, a retired FAA special agent from Massachusetts who briefly worked under Canavan. "I think his resignation was the direct result of him trying to protect the American public versus trying to secure his career."
The reasons for Canavan's departure were first reported earlier this week by USA Today. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown declined to comment on the controversy. Canavan also has been unavailable for comment.
A security official still with the agency said losing Canavan has demoralized rank-and-file agents. "The reaction has been from anger to resignation," said the agency veteran. "He was starting to chip away at the good-old-boy system."
Under the U.S. aviation security system, the main day-to-day responsibilities are delegated to airlines and airports. The FAA's principal role is to set and enforce security standards, and the agency maintains a force of about 800 special agents who function chiefly as inspectors. Even before Sept. 11, the system had many critics who said there was a lack of accountability and an abundance of loopholes.
Canavan came to the FAA last December after a 34-year career in the Army, much of it in Special Forces. He enlisted during the Vietnam War and saw combat in Southeast Asia and Grenada. He also took part in operations in northern Iraq, Bosnia and Liberia. He eventually reached the rank of lieutenant general.
Canavan's action-oriented background is at odds with the FAA's time-consuming regulatory process, which can take years to resolve issues and gives great weight to industry positions.
"Generals don't do very well in the Civil Service," said an aviation source who works closely with the government. "People weren't doing what he wanted. [The security division] continually butted heads with the airlines."
Before Sept. 11, there were rumors that Canavan might leave.
In an e-mail to subordinates on Sept. 22, he acknowledged those rumors, but said the attacks had steeled his resolve to stay on the job. A copy of the e-mail was provided to The Times.
"I want you to know that I have no plans to leave and that I am fully committed to instilling the public's confidence back in our civil aviation system," Canavan wrote. "[Our] character will be defined as to what we do after we have been knocked to our knees."
Steve Elson, a retired special agent from Louisiana who has become a critic of the FAA, said he had heard praise for Canavan from his colleagues still on the job. The general had a reputation for reading complaints sent in from the field, and often answering them directly.
"The FAA field agents in the offices he visited were really buoyed by just meeting and listening to him," Elson said.