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Air Marshal Deficit Skills*
05/23/2002 - Updated 09:26 PM ET
Skill level of new air marshals in doubt
By Blake Morrison, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON The government has cut training for federal air marshal applicants and put new hires on flights without requiring the advanced marksmanship skills the program used to demand, USA TODAY has learned.
During a Senate hearing Tuesday, Transportation Security Administration head John Magaw cited the expertise of marshals in explaining his opposition to allowing pilots to carry guns. "The use of firearms aboard a U.S. aircraft must be limited to those thoroughly trained members of law enforcement," he said.
But TSA officials acknowledged Thursday that they no longer require applicants to pass the more difficult shooting test that some argue was the program's critical requirement. The government considers the marshals, who fly incognito, a critical deterrent to hijackings.
Current and former marshals say the advanced training helped prepare them to fire accurately in the close confines of passenger jets. They and others within the TSA say agency officials, under pressure to meet congressional deadlines for hiring, are lowering standards to get marshals aboard more flights quickly.
"Before Sept. 11, if you couldn't pass that test, you couldn't be an air marshal," a source with knowledge of the top-secret program said. "That's how important it was."
A senior TSA official disputed the characterizations and said that the agency has actually raised standards and enhanced training. Applicants still must pass a firearms proficiency test and will have to requalify more often than marshals did before Sept. 11. They'll also get ongoing training in intelligence, surveillance and the advanced marksmanship that used to be required to qualify.
Many come with skills their predecessors lacked, the official said. The entire training regimen "goes far beyond what has ever been envisioned for this program," he said.
Supporters of the program have argued that any armed officer aboard a flight is better than none. But a source who works in the program calls the decision to no longer require the advanced marksmanship training a threat to passengers.
"It's pathetic," the source said. "It's insecure and unsafe."
The source estimated that as many as three-quarters of marshals deployed today were not required to pass the advanced marksmanship test. The source said that many of the proficient marshals are reluctant to team with marshals who haven't passed.
That test is timed and requires shooters to fire quickly at targets about 7 yards away. "If you miss it by a tenth of a second, you flunk," a former marshal said. "And if you miss the target by a quarter of an inch, you flunk."
Before Sept. 11, fewer than 50 marshals provided protection on flights. Most flew overseas routes considered possible targets. While the program has grown, precisely how many marshals work aboard flights is classified. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta promised the Senate committee Tuesday that the agency "will remain exactly on track with the targets" for marshal staffing that it gave Congress in a closed meeting.
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