WASHINGTON – An anti-terrorism test program is sending federal air marshals into train, subway and bus stations in six cities as part of a plan to occasionally use the armed agents on mass transit other than airplanes.
The three-day test in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia is exploring whether the marshals and other Transportation Security Administration officers could be sent out quickly to mass transit systems if intelligence indicates there’s a threat.
Amy Von Walter, a TSA spokeswoman, said the program is meant to “test TSA’s ability to deploy a variety of assets – TSA inspectors, TSA canine teams, marshals – to any mode of transportation within short notice.” The teams would be sent out “in the event of a serious threat or attack.”
She emphasized that there is no new intelligence indicating a threat and no plan to deploy any teams after the test program.
During the staggered three-day tests, which began Wednesday and run through Saturday, marshals are working with local and transit police in subway, train and bus stations.
Most commuters and passengers won’t see them. In Washington, D.C., for example, they will be working only at Union Station, which serves as the city’s Amtrak station.
Dave Adams, spokesman for the air marshals, said the test program is not taking marshals out of the skies. He said only those marshals on “non-flight status” – those scheduled for training or office duties this week – were selected. The test involves fewer than 60 people.
The number of air marshals is classified, though it has been widely reported that they cover only a small percentage of flights. Whether marshals would be taken out of the skies if teams were deployed to mass transit systems in response to a threat would depend on the circumstances, Adams said.
The air marshal program was formed to combat a spate of airline hijackings in the 1970s and was dramatically expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
On Dec. 8, for the first time since the program was expanded after 9/11, marshals shot and killed an airline passenger.
Marshals said Rigoberto Alpizar of Maitland, Fla., was acting erratically and made a bomb threat aboard an American Airlines plane parked at a gate at Miami International Airport.
The case is under investigation.