August 24, 2006

U.S. air marshals to go native

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The armed undercover officers who
protect U.S. airlines against attack no longer have to fear
being overdressed. They've been told they can ditch their suits
for outfits that blend in with their fellow travelers'.

The director of the Federal Air Marshal Service relaxed a
strict dress code and some of other rules on Thursday,
addressing gnawing problems at an organization that has
expanded quickly since 2001 but been plagued by poor morale.

On September 11, 2001, there were only 33 air marshals, but
now armed law enforcement officials disguised as passengers are
deployed on thousands of U.S. airline flights each week. Their
actual number is classified, but officials say it is in the

Dana Brown, who has been seeking to improve working
conditions since he took over as the agency's director earlier
this year, said that, as of September 1, marshals can choose
what to wear on flights.

"The manner of dress should allow you to blend in and not
direct attention to yourself, as well as be sufficiently
functional to enable you to conduct your law enforcement
responsibilities, and effectively conceal your duty equipment,"
he said in a memo to air marshals that was obtained by Reuters.

The new rules also will allow the air marshals to opt out
of staying at one hotel.

Brown's predecessor Thomas Quinn, who was charged with
beefing up the air marshal service after the September 11
hijackings, had faced resistance from disgruntled air marshals
who said their undercover status was compromised by rules like
the stringent dress code.

They complained that passengers, particularly on flights to
vacation destinations or on low-budget airlines, could easily
identify them because they were clean cut and dressed in
business attire.

Air marshals also criticized policies that made them
identify themselves at the airport, and sometimes at hotels.
Brown said he could not immediately change boarding procedures,
which have been criticized for forcing marshals to enter the
jetway to the airplane in full view of passengers waiting to

A critical congressional report in May urged the service to
change to help ensure the air marshals can do their job

"Any policy or procedure that potentially compromises the
identity of a federal air marshal is a policy or procedure that
compromises commercial aviation and national security," the
report said.