By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 1/6/2006 2:15:29 PM ET 2006-01-06T19:15:29

The head of the Federal Air Marshal Service, Thomas Quinn, is leaving office, effective Feb. 3, MSNBC.com has learned. 

Quinn announced his plans to retire in an internal agency e-mail late Thursday; he gave no reason for his resignation, or any indication of what he plans to do after leaving the agency.

"I am proud of the men and women of the FAMS and salute you for your dedication and performance in fulfilling our mission," Quinn, 59, says in the e-mail, obtained by MSNBC.com. "I leave knowing that the Federal Air Marshal Service is an effective, competent federal law enforcement organization that will continue to be an important contributor to the security of the homeland."

Quinn, a former Secret Service agent, came out of retirement to head up the moribund air marshal corps in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The air marshal program, started in the 1970s after a rash of airline hijackings, had dwindled in scope and importance. When 9/11 hit, there were only 33 air marshals on the payroll.

Quinn oversaw the often rocky transition of the newly formed Federal Air Marshal Service as it rapidly hired and trained "thousands" of new air marshals to meet a congressional deadline of having a functioning stand-alone agency by July 2002.  The exact number of air marshals is classified.

Quinn's relationship with the rank and file in the early years of the air marshal corps was acrimonious. Marshals often complained about the dress code and other procedures Quinn put in place. Quinn always insisted those complaining were a small but vocal minority.

Despite some internal problems , the air marshal program appeared to evolve and successfully navigate the sometimes roiling internal political waters of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Although an air marshal's job is essentially to ride shotgun on a commercial airline and stop any potential terrorist threat, the scope of the marshals' position has expanded, thanks to Quinn's oversight. 

Air marshals are now members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and they have begun to branch out into other forms of mass transportation, such as rail, under a pilot project announced last month.

One of the air marshals' most significant public achievements came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  In the chaos that followed the evacuation of the Superdome in New Orleans, the city's airport had become as lawless as a frontier town. TSA officials asked the air marshals to rush to the airport and restore law and order, and within hours there were hundreds of air marshals at the airport performing all kinds of duties from moving planes into position to providing security. The marshals took several hundred weapons from those in the airport and restored order until the National Guard arrived.

Quinn leaves in the direct aftermath of the most dramatic episode of the restored agency's young history: the fatal shooting by two air marshals of a distraught U.S. citizen as he fled from an airplane in Miami on Dec. 8.  It was the first time any air marshal had fired a weapon in the line of duty since 9/11.

Quinn's resignation is not related to that incident, said David Adams, a TSA spokesman. 

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