The system, part of a multi-million dollar contract with the Datamaxx company, was pushed for by the former director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, Thomas Quinn. He went to work as a paid consultant for the company weeks after he left the government earlier this year.
Under Quinn, the Federal Air Marshal Service paid Datamaxx more than $22 million for a system of personal digital assistants, or PDAs, that was supposed to allow air marshals to document suspicious behavior and communicate with the ground during emergency situations.
Air marshals say that what they got was little more than a paperweight. "They were represented as something that was going to help us identify terrorists, but there's just no way that it was going to work that way," said Don Strange, a former FAMS Special Agent-in-Charge in Atlanta.
Air marshals who tried to use them during a recent incident on a Dallas-Newark flight said they were "worthless," according to marshals who thought the devices were supposed to provide communication between marshals in the air. A FAMS official said the devices do not currently feature that capability.
A House Judiciary Committee report released two weeks ago found that an "overwhelming majority" of air marshals interviewed said the PDAs were "inoperable and consistently failed to perform their intended functions."
Datamaxx referred questions related to operational issues to the Federal Air Marshal Service.
FAMS spokesman Conan Bruce said that the agency upgraded the device through Datamaxx last October and that the current PDA "performs its intended functions and operates well."
Quinn resigned on February 3 of this year. Within weeks, he was promoting Datamaxx's products at a homeland security trade show in Washington, D.C.
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the Federal Air Marshal Service, said that Quinn had cleared his current work with Datamaxx through the agency's ethics office.
Government watchdogs say Quinn's employment with Datamaxx raises ethical questions. "There is absolutely an appearance that this is payback for his irrational exuberance for this contractor and its products," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that monitors government contracting.
Just before leaving office, Quinn promoted the Datamaxx's software in an article he wrote for a law enforcement newsletter. Quinn's article is prominently featured on the company's website.
"It looks like Mr. Quinn is using his office, which he just left to give a seal of approval on this company's product," said Jennifer Porter Gore of the Project on Government Oversight. "Let's just say this doesn't pass the smell test."
Quinn did not returned phone calls requesting comment for this story.