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Feds Beefing Up Air Marshal Plan

The Bush administration is shuffling its homeland security operation to make available more armed agents for airliner protection.

According to a plan unveiled Tuesday, the reorganization will combine the federal air marshal's program with the customs and immigration security programs so agents in both can be cross-trained and used for aviation security, officials said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge outlined the reorganization in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

"This realignment offers a sweeping gain of additional armed law enforcement officials who will be able to provide a 'surge capacity' during increased threat periods or in the event of a terrorist attack," Ridge said in remarks prepared for a speech Tuesday to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Importantly, with this single move we will be able to deploy more than 5,000 additional armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies," he said.

Earlier this year, the administration came under criticism from lawmakers when it was learned the Transportation Security Administration wanted to cut 20 percent of its funding for the air marshal's program to plug other budget holes.

Lawmakers vowed to block any such funding cuts.

The reorganization plan is aimed at giving the Homeland Security Department more flexibility in the way it uses its armed customs and aviation security agents.

The number of air marshals is classified. In a news release, the department said its reorganization will "make available more than 5,000 additional armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies."

As part of the changes, the Federal Air Marshal's program will be moved from the Transportation Security Administration to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The immigration and customs agents and the air marshals will be cross-trained so they all can be deployed "to help disrupt aviation security-related threats" if necessary, the department said.

The changes "will significantly increase the number of federal law enforcement agents available…providing a surge capacity during increased threat periods or in event of a terrorist attack," it said.

In the 1970s, when teams of "sky marshals" were first created to thwart hijackings, they originally also were part of the U.S. Customs Service.

In its reorganization the Homeland Security Department also will:

  • Consolidate three different border inspections into one where a single "primary inspector" will handle immigration, customs and agricultural checks. If a question arises about a traveler, a "secondary inspection" will be conducted by another agent. The consolidation will allow more agents to be deployed for the more precise secondary inspections "targeting our resources toward those passengers with suspicious indictors," the department said.
  • Establish a network of secure communications between the department and the states, including secure video-conferencing and telephone lines to be used for sharing information about terrorist threats.
  • Make it easier for states to obtain anti-terrorist and security grants. The department will ask Congress to centralize the grant application process, which now is spread across numerous agencies, under one agency.
The changes to the sky marshal program are the latest moves in Homeland Security's efforts to adjust security programs to meet threats and budget reality.

In May, the government announced plans to eliminate 3,000 more airport screening jobs by the end of September. The cuts, coupled with 3,000 others announced in March, amount to about 11 percent of the 55,600 screeners employed. The moves will save the Transportation Security Administration an estimated $280 million, director James Loy said.

In June, the government said some federal air marshals have been placed on administrative leave because they may have lied on their job applications. Separately, some air screeners were found to have gotten their jobs despite botched background checks.

Last week, some pilots complained that the government's training program to arm commercial airline pilots is failing — discouraging them from signing up by requiring background and psychological checks, ordering pilots to carry guns in lockboxes and holding the training at a single remote site.

The government contends the program is now at full capacity and it expects to train all qualified pilots who volunteer to carry guns within a year.

In July, the TSA announced that removing shoes at airport metal detectors will be optional. Months before that, it discontinued the "two questions" that had been asked at airport ticket counters for years, which asked if a passenger had packed his bags himself or let them get out of his sight.