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Air Marshals' Future Full of Questions

January 14, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The date was Sept. 11. Vowing to combat "the menace of air piracy," the president announced that specially trained, armed federal agents would be deployed on airliners.

That president was Richard Nixon, and the year was 1970, when a series of violent hijackings around the world shook the confidence of air travelers.

Thirty-one years later, President Bush also has turned to air marshals to protect the skies. By the time of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the nation's corps of marshals had shrunk from a high of about 2,000 to a mere 32. And on Sept. 11, 2001, they were in the wrong places--assigned to selected high-risk international flights, not domestic flights like the transcontinental routes targeted by Al Qaeda.

Even though the program is now being rapidly expanded to perhaps 2,000 or more marshals--the number is classified--odds remain low that any given flight will have plainclothes marshals aboard.

It would take 120,000 marshals or more--men and women who usually work in teams--to cover the 30,000-plus daily flights in the United States, security experts and former government officials said. Such a program could easily cost more than $10 billion a year. Budget figures for the current program are classified.

"What the government is doing is promoting a program to make people feel good," said Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines, who thinks Bush should find a better way to spend taxpayers' money. "Security is best ensured before the plane departs. I'd rather have marshals help on the ground than have them on the plane to shoot it out with someone--at that point, it's too late."

Others are concerned that the marshals will again face budget cutbacks as soon as the perception of a threat recedes. Indeed, there was an attempt to shut the program down as recently as the early 1990s. And some worry that the current fast-paced expansion could compromise high standards.

Advocates of the program say air marshals can be an effective part of a many-layered security strategy.

"I always maintained, and still do, that it has a deterrent effect," said O.K. Steele, a retired Marine Corps general who headed the Federal Aviation Administration's security branch in the early 1990s. "Terrorists would never know whether they would have to confront marshals. To be able to overcome them, they would have to put more people on a flight. And when they put more people on, they're exposing themselves to detection by other means."

The FAA, which runs the marshals program, has little to say about it, citing a security need to keep its operations secret.

Thousands of applicants are vying for air marshal jobs that will pay $35,100 to $88,800 a year, depending on qualifications and experience. (Hundreds of agents temporarily on loan from other federal agencies--such as customs, the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration--are filling in for now.)

In the newly expanded program, marshals are covering domestic as well as overseas routes. Flights to certain airports--such as Washington's Reagan National--are more likely to have them aboard, as are some transcontinental flights.

Recruiting women is a priority.

Prospective marshals must have superlative shooting skills, be no older than 40 and pass several training courses and a background investigation for top-secret security clearance.

Veterans of the program say it also helps to possess an unnatural ability for staying awake--and alert.

"It's very difficult to remain focused on those long flights," said Don Tyson, a former Navy SEAL who flew as a marshal from 1985 to 1992 and is now retired in the Southwest. "When you're talking New York to Tokyo, sometimes you're up 20 hours with no sleep. . . . You read a lot of books."

The image of an air marshal as a lone, dark-suited agent hunkered down somewhere near the cockpit door could not be further from reality, Tyson said. For one thing, a single marshal would be little more than a sitting duck with a badge. One terrorist could flush him out and another could take him down.

"Obviously, you've got to have more than two people," Tyson said. "You blend in with the passengers. You are dispersed throughout the aircraft." Big, compartmented planes such as Boeing 747s would require a squad of marshals.

On a mission, the marshals arrive well before takeoff to meet with airline security and the flight crew. The plane's captain--not the marshals' team leader--remains the commander of the flight.

Once airborne, marshals can communicate by various means, including asking flight attendants to pass a note tucked in a prearranged page of a magazine.

Being a dead-sure shot is the single most important qualification for an air marshal, Tyson said. "We had the highest shooting standard of any federal agency, bar none," he said. A combination of speed and accuracy is prized.

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