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Customs agents to beef up air marshal program

From Mike M. Ahlers

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal air marshal program will be transferred to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, providing about 5,000 extra armed officers during surge periods on commercial flights, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the change in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Ridge also announced a program streamlining customs, immigration and agricultural inspections at the nation's borders and airport ports of entry.

The exact number of federal air marshals has been a closely held secret since the program was started after a wave of hijackings in the 1970s. But the hundreds of marshals originally thought to have staffed the program had dwindled to fewer than 20 by 2001, when hijackers commandeered four planes in the September 11 attacks.

Air marshals
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After the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration buttressed the program with hundreds of officers borrowed from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marshals Service and other federal agencies, and started a massive effort to hire air marshals. The program was moved this year to the Department of Homeland Security after its creation.

Tuesday's transfer of the program to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will allow federal air marshal and customs officers to cross-train, expanding the pool of possible air marshals and giving existing air marshals new career opportunities, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said.

Air marshals receive specialized training about the handling of in-flight incidents and use of weapons on aircraft.

A spokesman said there are 11,000 to 15,000 Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and he estimated that about 5,000 would cross-train as federal air marshals. The number of air marshals remains classified.

Some 45,000 airport screeners will stay in the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration.

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