Air Marshal Program: Is Training Adequate? ; the Shooting of a Passenger in Miami Followed Protocol, but Worries Rise about 'Mission Creep.'

Article excerpt

Wednesday's shooting of an unarmed airline passenger in Miami is casting fresh scrutiny on the Federal Air Marshals Service, the nation's last line of defense in the many-layered aviation security apparatus.

Few security experts question the actions of the air marshals who fired on Rigoberto Alpizar after he behaved erratically and reportedly said he had a bomb in his backpack. Within the context of their training, they say, the marshals acted appropriately.

But many question the training itself - as well as the way the federal government has handled the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) since 9/11, when the small security agency with fewer than three dozen marshals was ramped up to several thousand in a matter of months.

"All of this was created under tremendous pressure, as fast as they could, and the fact is that there are holes all over it," says Rich Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in Oregon. "There's a lot of stuff that they really never had the time to think through, so they're always trying to tweak it. When you do that, it can cause confusion, morale problems, and some people to lose faith in the system."

Since 9/11, the service has been bumped from agency to agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Inspector General and the General Accountability Office have issued reports critical of initial screening and training of new federal air marshals, as well as of the DHS response to concerns of air marshals themselves - about things such as how dress codes and other mandates might interfere with their mission by exposing their identities. Low morale remains a problem, some experts say.

DHS officials say that the problems have been resolved, that training is excellent and ongoing, and that morale among marshals is high. "We're constantly aware and vigilant about the job they do. There are no morale problems at all, and the men and women are doing an outstanding job seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Dave Adams, DHS spokesman for the FAMS. "Their response in this case was textbook."

But the shooting at Miami International Airport on an American Airlines jetway - the first ever by a federal air marshal - signifies that training must be improved, critics say, particularly in light of two significant changes in the nation's skies. On Dec. 22, the Transportation Security Administration will allow passengers toting certain sharp items, such as scissors and screwdrivers, to board planes. …


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