Friday, January 21, 2005

Hundreds of federal air marshals were grounded and unable to access critical information to pinpoint potential terrorist activity for eight hours on the eve of President Bush’s inauguration after snow paralyzed the Mission Operations Center in Washington, said several air marshals and a supervisor.

The marshals said they could not reach the Mission Operations Center (MOC) by telephone to be placed on other flights after hundreds of flights were rerouted because of the snow, and marshals seeking information on reports of a dirty bomb in Boston were unsuccessful.

“They were flying blind,” said the supervisor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “An inch of snow shut down the Federal Air Marshals system’s [ability] to gather, receive or request information.”

“It basically put the entire aviation security system and flying public at risk because the air marshals were not able to properly do their jobs,” the supervisor said.

The supervisor said MOC sent out a message at about 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday that the “system was shut down and they were not answering phones or anything” because they did not have enough staff working.

“Guys were literally stuck all over the U.S., and the problem is that when we see suspicious activity and need to check names against the watch list, no one was even available for an eight-hour period,” the supervisor said.

Dave Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said marshals were told not to call MOC unless their flights were canceled, but that it was operating and properly staffed. He said it is “understood” calls concerning suspicious activity could be made to MOC.

“We had a significant amount of people to handle over 551 schedule changes due to inclement weather, based on airline changes,” Mr. Adams said.

He declined to say how many employees were working the phones. He did say all of the MOC’s consoles were staffed.

“We fly the airline’s schedule, not ours. When the airlines are canceling flights, we have to adjust accordingly, and that’s what we were doing,” Mr. Adams said.

Air marshals said their calls to MOC weren’t getting through and that they were getting disconnected after 20 rings.

“The guys in the field were stuck and didn’t know what was going on, other than they were not to call MOC because they did not have enough people staffing it,” the supervisor said.

“The president’s inauguration was the whole purpose of increased coverage. If they can’t handle one inch of snow, what if it is truly an emergency? It was just a total meltdown,” the supervisor said.

One stranded air marshal who was on duty Wednesday evening to fly over Washington said he called MOC for a half-hour before someone finally answered the phone.

Instead of protecting that flight about 8 p.m., it was nearly 1 a.m. before that marshal was on an airplane flying over Washington.

When told the “meltdown” was caused by weather delays in Washington, the air marshal said: “It’s called the Weather Channel. They should watch it and be prepared to staff for it.”

A second air marshal called it “ridiculous” that they were ordered not to call MOC, “especially with the high threat risk” of the inauguration.

“For something to go down and the guys not be able to call in, is unacceptable,” the air marshal said.

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