Air marshals' main worry: being spotted by terrorists

December 08, 2005|By JON HILKEVITCH | JON HILKEVITCH,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Federal air marshals are the consummate frequent fliers, logging thousands of miles each week while trying to blend in with the airport crowd.

One air marshal, known as "the doctor" among associates, is a certified emergency medical technician. Without blowing his cover, he recently helped a sick passenger use an onboard oxygen canister during a flight.

Air marshals frequently pose as good Samaritans volunteering to help flight attendants deal with drunken or unruly travelers.

But until yesterday when an agitated passenger who claimed to have a bomb in his backpack was shot and killed, no federal air marshal had fired a weapon on duty, though they had been involved in scores of incidents.

Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, air marshals and airline pilots have reported to federal authorities incidents in which people behaving suspiciously appeared to be evaluating on-board security, according to congressional testimony. It is thought that terrorists continue to fly on airline routes to and within the United States to look for weaknesses in the still-evolving aviation security system.

The ploys have ranged from faking illness, to disobeying orders from flight attendants to sit down, to a few cases of individuals running toward the cockpit door in apparent efforts to draw any air marshals from their seats.

Experts say another strategy is focused on determining specific flights that are routinely flown by armed pilots participating in the flight deck officers program.

A major concern among air marshals is being identified by terrorists. On flights selected for extra security, at least two air marshals are assigned to a plane - one in the first-class cabin to watch the cockpit door, another in coach.

Until earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security enforced a formal dress code for air marshals - suits and ties - that made them stand out from the more casual appearance of many passengers.

"I have sat in the same seat since my first day on the job," said a federal air marshal, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "I am in jeopardy because a lot of the passengers know instantly who we are."

He also said there is widespread opposition among air marshals to last week's decision by the Transportation Security Administration relaxing the ban on passengers bringing scissors and short blades aboard planes.

"A terrorist knows who I am and how to slit my throat by placing two credit cards together," the air marshal said. "I don't want to make it any easier for him."

Jon Hilkevitch writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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