Washington Efforts to train thousands of federal agents to protect commercial flights during terror alerts were quietly abandoned more than a year ago because Congress objected to the cost, government investigators said Tuesday.
The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, reported that the federal air marshal service suspended its efforts to develop such a "surge capacity" by training customs and immigration agents to protect airliners.
The Homeland Security Department "indicated that it would continue to support the effort but had not determined whether and when it would resume cross-training to resume this initiative," the report said.
The plan was first disclosed in September 2003 by Tom Ridge, then Homeland Security secretary.
Ridge announced that the air marshals would be combined with immigration and customs agents in the same agency so agents in both could be cross-trained and used for security. The move would allow more than 5,000 armed federal law enforcement agents to be deployed on aircraft, he said.
By October 2004, Homeland Security had cross-trained some immigration and customs agents, but stopped because of congressional concerns that it was "an ineffective use of resources," the report said.
The air marshal program was nearly nonexistent at the time of the 9-11 attacks. Only 32 agents were employed then, but the number increased into the thousands after the hijackings. The exact number is classified.