By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 9/15/2004 7:37:39 PM ET 2004-09-15T23:37:39

Although there are fewer air marshals on the payroll than at this time last year, more flights are being covered on a daily basis, said Thomas Quinn, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service.

The service has come under scrutiny lately regarding the percentage of the nation’s commercial airline flights that are actually protected by teams of armed federal air marshals. 

Quinn dismissed press reports that the agency was covering only 3 percent to 4 percent of commercial flights in the United States on a daily basis.  Although he declined to give specifics, Quinn said his agents cover “more than 5 percent” of some 28,000 daily commercial flights in the United States.  And at airports of high interest, such as Washington, D.C. and New York, much greater percentages of flights carry air marshals, he said. 

The 9/11 commission recommended more study be done in an effort to determine what adequate staffing levels for the service should be in order for it to provide more protection for U.S. commercial airliners.

In the immediate post-9/11 days, Congress authorized a dramatic ramp-up of a nearly moribund air marshal program, which had only 33 persons, covering only international flights. The federal air marshal service was jump-started, and though the exact number of marshals is classified, the agency acknowledges that “thousands” are in its ranks. 

“I have said from Day One that the fully authorized strength, the appropriated strength, I’m satisfied with and would like to have the budget to sustain,” Quinn told reporters Tuesday.  However, he acknowledged that “we haven’t had the budget to sustain that [optimal staffing level] for a variety of reasons.”

Like every other agency, Quinn noted, the marshal service is one voice among many competing for money.  “The funding obviously is something that is a process between the department, the administration and the Congress,” Quinn said.  “We have a voice in it. I express that voice.”

The air marshal service operates on a $626 million budget.  However, the administration has trimmed that amount by $13 million in its fiscal year 2005 budget proposal.  That leaves little room for new hires and completion of advanced research projects, such as a reliable surface-to-air wireless ground communication system that won’t interfere with cockpit operation. 

“There is an impact,” Quinn acknowledged, regarding current budget constraints, but any such impact is “minimal.” 

Surge protected
And in fact, the agency has recently received reinforcements, courtesy of itself, owing to completion of an internal advanced training program that ended in July.

“I feel comfortable giving you the numbers,” said Quinn, speaking about an area in which the service is usually tight-lipped.  “We added a little over 300 federal air marshals dedicated to this training” back into regular flying status,” he said.

But the agency has also instituted two other programs that give it a potential for much broader coverage should a crisis arise. 

The first is a “surge” capability in which federal agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, which also houses the air marshals, are given hands-on, tactical and skill training in air marshal techniques.  The training is a week-long course conducted by air marshals at various field offices throughout the country.

About 400 of the 5,000 current ICE agents have completed the training, Quinn said, and more are being cross-trained all the time.  If needed, these ICE agents will be partnered with an air marshal in times of high alert, Quinn said.

In addition, the air marshals have instituted a “force multiplier” program that calls for other federal agencies with armed agents, such as the Secret Service, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to share air travel information with the air marshal program. 

“The purpose of this, first of all, is to know, in the event of a crisis, if there is a federal agent on board a particular flight,” Quinn said.  As a secondary benefit, if the air marshal schedulers identify a particular flight as having several armed agents on board we could reconsider redeploying [our air marshal team] to another flight,” Quinn said. 

Federal agents who fly armed are given a 2-1/2 hour briefing and CD-ROM-based instruction that “essentially gives them suggestions as to what to do and not to do and if there happen to be [marshals] on board,” Quinn said. However, the other federal agents aren’t expected to become substitute air marshals.

“The important thing to understand here — and this is critical — we’re not asking their agents do to anything other than what they are already trained to do,” Quinn said.  “We’re not asking them to become [federal air marshals] for a day.”

Currently the service has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Secret Service in regard to sharing information about air travel schedules.  Other agencies are in negotiations to do likewise, Quinn said.  The holdup: Incompatible computer systems make the combining of such diverse policies and procedures a technological challenge, Quinn said. 

Surveillance reports submitted by air marshals “have clearly identified criminal terrorist activity in the aviation domain,” Quinn said. Those reports are now being followed up on by the Joint Terrorism Task Force run by the FBI.  Quinn didn’t reveal any details of those investigations and only said that no arrests yet have come from information provided by the air marshals.

And although there isn’t direct intelligence to indicate terrorists aren’t actively “probing” commercial flights to test for further vulnerabilities, Quinn said, “if I didn’t believe that the criminal terrorists were focused on aviation, I’m in the wrong job.”

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