WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is shuffling its homeland security operation to make 5,000 more armed agents available to protect commercial flights.
The reorganization will combine the air marshal's program with the customs and immigration security programs so agents in both can be cross-trained and used for aviation security, officials said. This will allow the government to put extra agents on airliners when officials believe they are being targeted by terrorists.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge described the changes as a way to better mobilize the resources of his department.
"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," Ridge said in remarks prepared for a speech Tuesday to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Importantly, with this single move we will be able to deploy more than 5,000 additional armed federal law enforcement agents to the skies," he said.
The immigration and customs agents and the air marshals will be cross-trained so they all can be deployed to disrupt attacks on airliners, the Homeland Security Department said in a statement.
As part of the changes, the air marshal's program will be moved from the Transportation Security Administration to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Earlier this year, the administration came under criticism from lawmakers when it was learned the Transportation Security Administration wanted to cut 20 percent of its funding for the air marshal's program to plug other budget holes.
Lawmakers vowed to block any such funding cuts.
The air marshal program was nearly nonexistent at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Only 32 agents were employed then, but the number was dramatically increased afterward. The exact number is classified.
In the 1970s, when teams of "sky marshals" were created to thwart hijackings, they were part of the U.S. Customs Service. The TSA was created following the Sept. 11 attacks and took over the air marshal program, along with airport screening and other transportation security operations.
The reorganization also will:
-Consolidate three border inspections into one where a single "primary inspector" will handle immigration, customs and agricultural checks. If a question arises about a traveler, a "secondary inspection" will be conducted by another agent. The consolidation will allow more agents to be deployed for the more precise secondary inspections "targeting our resources toward those passengers with suspicious indictors," the department said.
-Establish a network of secure communications between the department and the states, video-conferencing and telephone lines to be used for sharing information about terrorist threats.
-Make it easier for states to obtain anti-terrorist and security grants. The department will ask Congress to centralize the grant application process, which now is spread across numerous agencies, under one agency.