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Marshals for the New Era
FAA Seeks Recruits -- And Previews 'Next Time'

By Kirstin Downey Grimsley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2001; Page E01

POMONA, N.J., Sept. 26

It only took a few heart-stopping seconds.

Two hijackers, armed with knives, stormed through the cabin of the L-1011 wide-body jet, screaming and slashing passengers' throats as they rushed toward the cockpit. Then two air marshals, dressed as travelers, leapt to their feet, shouting at passengers to keep their heads down, and shot the attackers.

That's what could have happened on the doomed airliners on Sept. 11 if armed, trained and prepared federal air marshals had been there that day -- at least according to a demonstration for reporters today at a Federal Aviation Administration airstrip in southern New Jersey.

The FAA, which views the expansion of the air marshal system as a key component of its sky defense strategy, is launching a nationwide search for personnel to join the reinvigorated program. Its size and scope have fluctuated over the years based on funding and political perceptions of the risk of hijackings.

"We're seeking highly motivated, dedicated and trained" agents to fill the positions, said Jack Donovan, an FAA official who helps oversee the program. "We want patriotic Americans who want a good job and don't mind being away from home."

So far, it appears that many Americans are eager for the chance to face off against terrorists in the skies. Donovan said more than 150,000 people have downloaded applications for the jobs -- which pay between $35,000 and $80,800 a year -- since the information was placed on the agency's Web site on Sunday.

The FAA considers the number and identity of its marshals, their budget, the location of their training center, the routes they fly and their training procedures to be matters of national security, and it will not reveal details.

But in the interest of helping to persuade the American public to fly again, the agency dropped its veil of secrecy briefly today, permitting a group of reporters and photographers to observe the new recruits as they trained.

To get a head start on the expanded program, the FAA is training agents from other federal agencies, including the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Already experienced law enforcement officials, they are being schooled on handling warfare in a confined space aboard a jet at 37,000 feet.

Both new and current air marshals are being trained to cope with a new kind of hijacker -- one willing to give his life to succeed in an attack. "Obviously if you've got a person who's willing to die, pure intimidation by us won't work," said one supervisor. "We need to take whatever action it takes."

The idea of security guards in the skies originated in the 1960s as a response to a series of hijackings to and from Cuba. The program, then known as the Sky Marshals, grew rapidly during the 1970s but then declined as the threat of hijackings dissipated.

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At its peak, staffing levels reached several thousand, according to some published reports, while dropping to fewer than a hundred at other times.

The new "civilian aviation security specialists," or federal air marshals, will travel on U.S. carriers on both domestic and international flights. To be eligible, an agent must be able to obtain and keep a top-secret security clearance. Candidates must be between the ages of 21 and 40 to apply and must be in top physical condition.

The job posting on the FAA Web site said applicants must be able to travel regularly for several weeks at a time, while working irregular hours and being on call 24 hours a day. While deployed, they will have limited personal contact with family and limited time off.

The marshals will spend time "in foreign countries that are sometimes politically or economically unstable, and may pose a high probability of terrorist or criminal activity against the U.S. Government," the posting said. "In addition, some locations may present health hazards such as poor sanitation and unsafe water."

Such a life on the road, away from friends and family, can be taxing. One air marshal, who was training on the gun range, said he is a father of young children and his wife must carry the burden when he is away.

"It's harder on them, though it's hard on me," said the man, who, like his colleagues, declined to give his name. His work is particularly demanding now because he is spending his off hours helping recruits improve their shooting skills.

"One of the toughest things they face is keeping their families together," said another FAA marshal instructor.

Today's demonstration provided a chilling glimpse of the potential mayhem during a crisis aloft. The FAA's Donovan had warned reporters as they departed for the training areas: "It's dynamic, lethal and confusing." Even though it was clearly a mock scenario, some hard-boiled reporters, playing the role of passengers, cringed a bit as the "terrorists" moved among them, stabbing passengers.

Later, when the attackers had been subdued and the victorious marshals began shouting that passengers should put their hands on their heads, the reporters stopped scribbling in their notebooks and did as they were told.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? (Who Shall Guard the Guards?)

The person formerly known as Covert Mission.
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