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Air marshals taught to be risk averse

Federal air marshals in training.


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Department of Homeland Security
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
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(CNN) -- Federal air marshals train to shoot in extremely close quarters and tense situations, but until Wednesday no agent had used his weapon.

What happened Wednesday at Miami's international airport could spark debate on the role of the law enforcement officials who sit incognito on flights, prepared to stop any threat to the crew or passengers.

"People will be looking at this air marshal program," said Richard Falkenrath, a security analyst for CNN and a former deputy homeland security adviser. "The air marshals have had a somewhat checkered history over the last four years.

"They are very proficient law enforcement [officers]. They are very good shots. They spend a lot of time training, but they really don't get a whole lot of action." ( Watch as the marshals train -- 5:03)

Falkenrath said that air marshals are taught to be "risk averse," and that they try to avoid pulling their handguns.

But, he said, "If they think the person is a risk to themselves, to the air marshals or to the passengers, they're there to take him out." (Read about marshals killing a man who claimed to have a bomb)

The Federal Air Marshal Service had its first incarnation in 1961 as a sky marshal program set up to deter hijackings.

The agency was expanded in 1985 after TWA Flight 847 was hijacked in Athens, Greece. The hijackers killed Robert Stethem, a U.S. Navy diver, during a two-week standoff in Beirut, Lebanon.

On September 11, 2001, there were 33 marshals who flew only on international flights. After the attacks on Washington and New York, the Federal Aviation Administration buttressed the program with hundreds of officers borrowed from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marshals Service and other federal agencies, and started a massive hiring effort.

The Air Marshal Service says on its Web site that after President Bush promised to expand the program, it received 200,000 applications, but a 2004 report by the Department of Homeland Security found problems in the background screening given applicants. The report also cited disciplinary problems among agents.

There were also at least nine investigations into whether agents, who are often privy to classified information, had leaked secrets to the media or public.

The total number of marshals is classified, but in 2003, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told CNN there were several thousand agents.

That was the year the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement took over the program and allowed air marshals to train as customs officers and vice versa. The move caused some friction among customs agents, who said they hadn't signed up to be air marshals, who often have irregular schedules and complain of monotony.

The agency was again transferred in October -- this time to the Transportation Security Administration.

Falkenrath said air marshals receive very specific training -- the service's Web site says it includes "behavioral observation, intimidation tactics and close quarters self-defense" -- and are able to shoot and kill while the airplane is in flight.

Agents are assigned to some international flights based on a threat assessment and marshals work in teams, he said.

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