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Report: Agency policies put air marshals at risk

Marshals spokesman disputes congressional draft report

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Air Marshal Service is jeopardizing the safety of rank-and-file officers with policies that could reveal the identities of the plainclothes marshals, congressional investigators said in a draft report obtained Friday by CNN.

The service's dress code and check-in procedures at airports and hotels make it harder for the marshals to remain anonymous, the House Judiciary Committee draft report states.

The report is the product of a two-year investigation.

The criticisms in the congressional draft report have previously appeared in media accounts, and marshals service spokesman Dave Adams said Friday that many of its conclusions were inaccurate or reflect outdated policies.

The report goes on to criticize the service for allowing several major media outlets -- including CNN -- to do profiles of marshals at work, stating that the coverage revealed details that could help terrorists spot air marshals on planes.

The report also says service officials have unduly restricted air marshals' free speech rights and have retaliated against marshals who have publicly complained about service policies.

The 28-page draft report was written by investigators on the House Judiciary Committee at the behest of committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. The draft will be discussed at a meeting Thursday, when the committee could adopt it or take other action, committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said.

The Federal Air Marshal program, which puts plainclothes officers on airplanes, started in the early 1960s in reaction to airplane hijackings and grew to include nearly 400 officers in 1987. But the numbers dwindled to 33 before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, after which the program was revitalized. Although the number of air marshals is classified, it is believed that there are several thousand.

The report addresses the following areas:

Dress codes

Grooming and dress codes requiring air marshals to wear a jacket or suit "simply does not advance a goal of having Federal Air Marshals blend in with the traveling public in all circumstances," the report states. It recommends a dress code that "reasonably reflects the nature of modern air travel."

Adams said that criticism was outdated. The agency changed its policy in 2005 to allow air marshals to dress in clothing appropriate to the area they are traveling in, he said.

Hotel check-in

The agency requires air marshals to stay at designated hotels and show service credentials to desk clerks, the draft report states. That practice "unnecessarily jeopardized their identity and, subsequently, national security," it states.

The policy has allowed hotels to expose the presence of air marshals as guests, the report states. In fact, the Sheraton at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, airport once declared the agency "company of the month" for booking rooms at the hotel.

Adams disputed that, saying air marshals are required to show federal government identification, but not air marshal identification, to get government room rates. He said the practice does not jeopardize security.

Boarding procedures

The report states procedures for bypassing airport checkpoints and boarding aircraft expose air marshals to detection by terrorists. The armed air marshals must show identification to airport screeners to bypass checkpoints, and they must pre-board planes to notify airline pilots and crews of their presence.

Adams said federal regulations require air marshals to show a picture ID and badge to airplane crews. The policies are designed to prevent "blue-on-blue" incidents -- cases in which law enforcement officers mistake other law enforcement officers for miscreants.

Because air marshals should not flash identification in front of the general public, the only reasonable way to identify themselves is by pre-boarding, Adams said.

The draft report recommends that the agency open discussions with other entities to ensure than anonymous boarding procedures are available.

Media coverage

The report also expresses concerns about marshals officials' "over-eagerness to disclose sensitive security information to national media outlets," noting that several news organizations have been allowed to fly along with air marshals and observe their training.

NBC and CNN have both accompanied air marshals on missions, though neither network showed the air marshals' faces nor revealed details of the operations deemed sensitive by the agency.

But, the draft report states, the broadcasts and other print coverage revealed details that could help terrorists. The report states that the FBI told the Federal Air Marshal Service that an al Qaeda terrorist in custody "was able to devise a plan of attack based upon information" in a Fox News report.

The captured terrorist, according to a report in the Army Times newspaper, gleaned information from a Fox News broadcast of January 7, 2006 -- including where air marshals typically sit and their hand-to-hand combat techniques -- that could help defeat air marshals.

Adams questioned the reliability of the terrorist, saying that Fox never accompanied an air marshal on a mission and that he can find no record of the supposed January 7 news report.

Adams said the organization has been careful in dealing with the media and that no sensitive information has been released.

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