Along with box-cutters and fanaticism, the 9/11 terrorists had one other weapon that helped them hijack four airliners and turn them into missiles: Surprise. Now, agents with the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) are complaining that government work rules would prevent them from turning that same weapon on the bad guys in any future attacks.
On June 9, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge faced questions about that charge from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Kohl took up the air marshals' cause in April after the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) sent an open letter to Congress complaining that "FAMS executives have taken the FAMS, and the American public, down a dangerous road."
The danger, said FLEOA national secretary Jon Adler, lurks in recent changes in FAMS dress codes, grooming standards, and boarding procedures. Prior to 2002, air marshals operated undercover, boarding-and blending in-with other passengers. Now, air marshals must wear suits or sport coats and ties, adhere to military-style grooming standards, and pre-board in plain sight of other passengers-including any would-be hijackers.
Air marshals are now so visible, said one who requested anonymity to protect his job, that passengers routinely say to him, "You're an air marshal, aren't you?" Others complain to gate agents, demanding to know why an able-bodied young man is pre-boarding with small children and old folks in wheelchairs. Passengers may complain, he told WORLD-but terrorists take notes.
Sen. Kohl wondered whether such public identification compromised the whole air marshal strategy. "It defeats the purpose, doesn't it?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, it does," replied Mr. Ridge, whose department oversees FAMS. "We're looking at a system-wide change."
Change couldn't come soon enough for FLEOA, which has agitated for new rules since October. The dispute comes down to a difference in law-enforcement philosophy. FAMS director Thomas Quinn took over the agency in 2002 after a 20-year career in the Secret Service. In that agency, a show of force (think phalanxes of dark-suited, eagle-eyed G-Men miked up and flanking the presidential limo) is a widely used deterrent. Since taking over FAMS, Mr. Quinn has pressed air marshals into a similar mold, first notching down their operational classification from "undercover" to "covert," then to "semi-covert," and finally to "discreet," which means, essentially, "not uniformed." He also instituted the new dress code and grooming standards, calling them a mark of professionalism.
But air marshals working in the field say the new rules turn them into marked men. Their best weapon, they argue, had been secrecy, since it put terrorists on a "reactionary" footing, forcing them to deal with surprise resistance from a federal officer, instead of the other way around. Now, another air marshal told WORLD, "terrorists don't need to bring any weapons onto an aircraft. There are already two onboard and they know where they are," he said, referring to the guns carried by air marshals. "All they have to do is overcome [the marshals] by surprise, and take them."
FAMS personnel were overcome with outrage when, on Feb. 5 and 6, NBC Nightly News aired a two-part segment called "A Day in the Life of a Federal Air Marshal." The story detailed marshals' training, security and boarding procedures, seat assignments, and even the type of weapons used by FAMS. FLEOA national secretary Adler called the piece a "blueprint" for terrorists.
It will take time to institute the "system-wide changes" promised by Tom Ridge. His department, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, has launched "a full-scale review" of air marshal boarding procedures in an effort to make the agents' identity less apparent to observers. But that won't resolve the dress-code problem that one air marshal said makes him stand out "like a sore thumb" amid a casually clad traveling public.
"Most passengers aren't paying attention to that," he said. "But the bad guys are."