- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge yesterday announced the department will add 5,000 armed agents to the federal air marshals program for monitoring commercial flights.

The increase will be accomplished by maximizing existing Homeland Security resources to allow for what Mr. Ridge called a “surge capacity” to effectively respond to specific threats or a terrorist attack. The precise number of the marshals is classified.

In an address to the American Enterprise Institute in the District, Mr. Ridge said it “will be achieved by realigning the Transportation Security Administration’s Air Marshal Service with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [bureau].”

The air marshals program employed about 30 agents before September 11, 2001, but expanded dramatically after the terrorist attacks.

The announcement to reshuffle Homeland Security’s assets to further expand the program came on the first anniversary of the creation within the department of the Transportation Security Administration.

The Bush administration faced criticism earlier this year when TSA wanted to cut funding for the program by 20 percent to plug other budget holes. Congressional Democrats criticized any cutbacks, the possibility of which became known about the same time Homeland Security was warning airlines of potential terrorist hijackings.

Jim Berard, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, yesterday said he was uncertain whether the move to increase the number of air marshals was prompted by the criticism.

TSA spokesman Brian Turmail denied the notion that Mr. Ridge’s announcement to expand the program was a response to criticism from Democrats.

“This is something that Secretary Ridge has been looking at for many months now,” he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau officials said merging their efforts with the TSA’s air marshals would benefit both agencies. “It certainly enhances our communications, our intelligence sharing,” said Dean Boyd, the bureau’s spokesman. “If anything, we believe it will enhance security.”

Mr. Ridge said the reorganization will include the consolidation of existing customs and immigration security techniques at airports by cross training select officers to create “one face at the border.”

Officers will be trained to conduct primary inspections “as well as how to determine who needs to go through secondary inspections,” he said, adding the first group of officers “will be trained throughout this fall.”

Mr. Ridge touted other plans at Homeland Security, such as one to simplify the process by which states get federal grants for antiterrorism and security initiatives. He said Congress will be asked to centralize under a single agency the grant-application process.

Mr. Ridge also celebrated advances in the Homeland Security Department.

“We’ve made significant progress toward shoring the necessary layers of homeland security that have helped make America safer,” he said. “In the 20th century, America wielded a strength best used in the service of peace.”

He cited the establishment of the capability to communicate via secure phones and videoconferencing equipment within all 50 states, two territories and the District of Columbia since September 11.

But he noted the threat of terrorism is “not a problem unique to the United States” and the international community must unite in confronting it.

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