The Bush administration has announced it is reorganizing its homeland security operations to make available 5,000 more armed agents to protect commercial airline flights.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says air marshals along with immigration and customs agents will be trained so they all can be deployed to prevent terrorist attacks on airliners.
"This realignment offers a sweeping gain of additional, armed law enforcement officials who will be able to provide a surge capacity during increased threat periods or in the event of a terrorist attack. Importantly, in this single move, we will be able to deploy more than five-thousand additional, armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies when needed," he said.
Secretary Ridge made the announcement as the second anniversary approaches of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when hijackers slammed planes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a field in the state of Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died in those attacks.
The announcement also comes about a month after reports that the government was cutting back on the number of air marshals to save money.
Officials denied the reports, but they came as new warnings were issued that al-Qaida could be planning more suicide hijackings and bombings in the United States and overseas.
In addition to announcing the new air marshals program, Secretary Ridge says his department has now established a network of secure communications to share information about terrorist threats.
"Already under this effort we have provided all 50 states, as well as two of the territories and the District of Columbia, with a capability to communicate over secure phones and video conferencing equipment," he said. "Also, every governor and just about every state homeland security adviser now has access to classified information and the appropriate federal security clearances to receive it."
Mr. Ridge also says his department is consolidating the border inspection system for anyone coming into the United States.
Instead of three separate inspectors, there will be a single "primary inspector" who will now handle immigration, customs and agricultural checks. If questions arise about a traveler, a second, more in-depth inspection will be conducted by another agent.
Mr. Ridge says consolidation will allow more agents to be available to target suspicious people.