- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson yesterday told senators that Secret Service agents and other armed federal officials are being used to bolster the Federal Air Marshal Service’s efforts to guard airplanes from terrorist attacks.

“We’re trying to make sure, through additional resources, that we really increase the number of flights that are covered,” Mr. Hutchinson told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a hearing on the September 11 commission report.

Mr. Hutchinson denied that the number of marshals is declining and that few flights actually have them aboard, as marshals, pilots and an airline executive said in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times.

“We’ll certainly agree — and Congress well knows — that not all flights are covered,” said Mr. Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security.

The Washington Times reported Monday that less than five percent of 35,000 daily flights are protected by federal air marshals and that fewer than 3,000 out of nearly 100,000 pilots have been trained to carry guns in the cockpit.

Mr. Hutchinson did not discuss with the Senate panel the number of air marshals or the number of daily flights and called the story “misleading.” Before the hearing, he told C-SPAN that there are “thousands” of marshals.

“I think the Federal Air Marshal [Service] is a strong program that is well-managed,” Mr. Hutchinson told the Senate panel.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, called the low numbers “pathetic” and demanded that the committee receive a report on the exact numbers.

“This is a shocking story,” she said.

Mrs. Boxer challenged Mr. Hutchinson’s assertion that the number of marshals will not be reduced, citing a statement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge before a House panel in March.

“We went from a handful of [federal air marshals in fiscal year] ‘01 to literally thousands in ‘04, and there’s been a modest reduction and I think we can manage that reduction through ‘05,” Mr. Ridge said, according to CNN.

Mrs. Boxer said Mr. Hutchinson’s answers were “not good enough.”

“If I’m an average person sitting there, I’m not getting straight answers from you,” she said.

Mr. Hutchinson said there “are targeted flights, special flights of concern,” that all have air-marshal protection.

“The government won’t disclose the number of air marshals or armed pilots because it would confirm our worst fears — that the vast majority of our flights are as defenseless as they were on September 11,” said David Mackett, chairman of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

“Even if there were twice as many air marshals as reported — and there aren’t — that would only protect a little more than 10 percent of our flights. The fact is the system is far too big to afford air marshals for more than a handful of flights,” Mr. Mackett said.

Marshals and flight crews also are critical of the service’s dress codes, which they say identify agents to terrorists and leave them vulnerable to an attack before a plane is hijacked. They have said two officials were yanked from a flight for violating dress codes.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the September 11 commission, told the Senate panel that the dress code for marshals must be re-examined.

“Obviously, randomness is our best protection with air marshals, so they’ve got to be random. Nobody should be able to pick them out from the crowd,” Mr. Kean said.

Mr. Hutchinson said he agreed that marshals should operate in an undercover capacity to which Mrs. Boxer responded, “You say you agree with that criticism, and … you haven’t changed the rules yet?”

Air marshals already blend in with the flying public, Mr. Hutchinson said.

“If we need to adjust the rules, we will look into that, but that is the objective.”

Two air marshals were pulled from a Southwest Airlines flight last month, and the plane proceeded without protection because the men were not wearing sports coats.

“A sport coat should be a minimum!!!” Thomas Quinn, director of the air-marshal service, said in a May 14, 2003, e-mail obtained by The Washington Times. “Unless [special agents in charge] on a case-by-case basis approves something different for one specific mission.”

After the hearing, Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy told reporters that the dress code was established after pilots and flight crews complained.

“The problem we had was some air marshals showing up for duty in torn-up blue jeans and unshaven … very disheveled, and when they presented themselves to the pilots as federal air marshals, [the pilots] were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Mr. Murphy said.

However, several organizations have sided with the marshals and say the dress code is dangerous, including the Allied Pilots Association, Association of Flight Attendants and the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.

“None of us want to go out dressed like Serpico,” one air marshal said. “We only want to look like other passengers and frequent fliers.”

Shaun Waterman of United Press International contributed to this report.

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