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"Air marshals set up watch in S. Florida"
Saturday, March 30, 2002
Air marshals set up watch in S. Florida
By Jeff Shields
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The newly expanded and highly secretive Federal Air Marshal Service has
opened a South Florida operations office as the last line of defense
against airline terrorism.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is accepting applications now for
a job that offers the following perks: long hours, weeks away from
family and the opportunity to visit unstable areas of the globe with
"poor sanitation and unsafe water," according to the job description
available on the DOT's Web site.
Former Air Marshal David Johnson, a senior DOT special agent who has
been working in Miami for three years, was appointed special agent in
charge of the Miami Field Office, which opened quietly in November and
is responsible for all of Florida.
Johnson says many of the applicants -- more than 150,000 so far
nationwide -- are driven by patriotism, and include police officers and
other federal agents who want to do anything to help their country in
the post-Sept. 11 world.
"It's not for the faint of heart," said Johnson, who as a special agent
in Miami successfully investigated cases involving false background
checks and illegally obtained airport security badges. "Our main goal is
to protect the occupants of that plane from terrorism. It's not a
weekend in Paris."
Federal air marshals, formerly run by the Federal Aviation
Administration but now under the new Transportation Security
Administration, are assigned to "respond to criminal incidents aboard
U.S. air carriers, as well as other in-flight emergencies."
But the air marshals, as an anti-terrorist force, are clandestine: Most
information about them in terms of numbers and locations is classified.
Johnson even requested that his headquarters in a Broward County office
park and his age remain secret.
"Because of what our mission is, that's how it has to be. It's a covert
operation," Johnson said. "I can tell you there will be a large force of
air marshals present in South Florida."
It's obvious that, at this point, the air marshals can't be everywhere.
A series of high-profile incidents on airplanes -- including a Uruguayan
man who tried to break into the cockpit of a plane flying to Argentina
-- has been noteworthy for the absence of air marshals, leaving
passengers and flight attendants to defend the plane.
"We're doing our best to increase our numbers to cover as many flights
as operationally possible," Johnson said.
The air marshals' origins go back to the sky marshals, created in 1970
by President Richard Nixon. The sky marshals were placed aboard
passenger planes to thwart hijackings to Cuba. Run by the U.S. Customs
Service, the sky marshals lasted for only a few years.
President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order creating the new
federal air marshals after the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, in
which the attackers killed Robert Stethem, a Navy diver who was a
passenger on the plane.
Johnson started as a police officer in Savannah, Ga., in 1988, then
worked briefly as an undercover narcotics agent on a regional task force
in Georgia. He joined the Federal Air Marshals Program in 1990, working
out of the FAA's headquarters in Atlanta. He joined the DOT's Office of
Inspector General as a special agent in 1997 and was assigned to Miami
Johnson said that, although riding back and forth on planes may appear
boring, air marshals are constantly working. They are trained to
recognize suspicious people and behavior in the airport and on the
airplane and constantly monitor what's going on inside the plane. Air
marshals specialize in aircraft-specific, hand-to-hand combat tactics
with the highest shooting standards of any federal agency.
But they are known only to the flight crew and may look like your mother
or your son, Johnson said. The Transportation Security Administration
won't say which flights they'll be on, or how many they'll hire, because
of "operational security requirements," Johnson said.
"We could be anyone," Johnson said, "We could be anywhere."
For more information about the air marshals, the job description remains
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