Air Marshal Service showcases new command center

The Federal Air Marshal Service publicly unveiled its new command center Tuesday and announced an information-sharing agreement with the Secret Service that will help coordinate the deployment of armed agents on domestic and international flights.

The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) Missions Operations Center is open round-the-clock and is the "focal point" to receive and disseminate intelligence to plan domestic and international missions, said Thomas Quinn, director of the service.

"The Mission Operations Center tracks federal air marshal teams that are in the aviation domain worldwide everyday," he said.

The center is located at the service's Herndon, Va., headquarters, outside the nation's capital, where the Transportation Service Administration's command center also is located. FAMS opened the headquarters at the end of last year.

Quinn was unable to provide an estimate of how much the air marshal command center will cost to operate, but said his service's budget for fiscal year 2004 is about $620 million.

Quinn said the headquarters houses branches for domestic planning, international planning and scheduling and reservations, as well as the Missions Operations Center.

The service became part of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement as part of the reorganization of the Homeland Security Department. Quinn said air marshals have dealt with numerous situations aboard aircraft but it is difficult to prove whether an actual hijacking has been prevented.

ICE Assistant Secretary Michael Garcia also announced Tuesday an information-sharing agreement with the Secret Service. Under this arrangement, the Secret Service would provide air travel information for its agents to FAMS to help with coordination.

"This will allow our air marshals to know when and where armed Secret Service agents are flying in the country that will give FAMS the flexibility to deploy their air marshals onto other flights," Garcia said. "Rather than having four armed agents flying on one flight, the FAMS can now cover additional flights by knowing when and where Secret Service agents are flying."

The agreement does not mean Secret Service agents will act as air marshals, said Secret Service Deputy Director C. Danny Spriggs. The agreement simply states that FAMS will know what flights Secret Service agents are taking.

"Under no circumstances should this agreement be interpreted to suggest that the Secret Service agents and officers traveling are de facto [air marshals]," Spriggs said. "We're not there to supplant the federal air marshals that are on these aircraft. We're basically there in the normal course of business."

Spriggs said Secret Service agents would intervene only in an emergency aboard an aircraft if asked to do so by flight attendants. He said his agents have the training to handle different types of emergencies, including shooting firearms in close quarters aboard a plane if necessary.

Under the agreement, Secret Service agents will receive a briefing on what FAMS does, but agents will not receive any additional, special training.

Garcia said there are about 65,000 federal agents in the United States who are authorized to carry weapons.

ICE is training its agents to be air marshals in case the country needs a surge capacity. About 6,000 ICE agents will eventually be trained, while the Secret Service has about 3,100 agents. Garcia said another 1,000 law enforcement agents fly with firearms aboard planes, leaving a total of more than 10,000 additional agents to help FAMS.

FAMS will not disclose how many air marshals are in its ranks.

Garcia said he wants to reach agreements with other federal agencies to have access to their agents' travel information as well.

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