Monday, August 9, 2004

Air marshals too easy to spot?

Dress code rules a 'joke,' one says

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Some federal air marshals complain that rigid dress codes and grooming rules have made them easy to spot.

"It's a joke," one air marshal, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Plain Dealer in a story published Sunday.

For months, marshals have been trying to get the dress code rules relaxed because they say their formal dress makes them stick out, not blend in.

"You can't go out on Southwest Airlines on a weekend in a business suit," said John Amat, a spokesman for the Federal Law Enforcement Officer Association. "It just doesn't cut it."

Amat and air marshals say if the casual traveler can spot an air marshal, so could a potential terrorist. The biggest fear among some air marshals is that terrorists will specifically target them and use their weapons to hijack a plane.

Federal officials vigorously defend the dress code and say the complaining marshals are exaggerating the issue.

"They're going to look like any other passenger, but they need to be dressed professionally. The suggestion that air marshals are easily spotted because of their attire is simply not true," said David Adams, a spokesman for the service.

The issue took on renewed urgency last month, when two marshals were removed from a Southwest Airlines flight leaving Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, after a supervisor saw them improperly dressed. Their sport coats were not visible, the newspaper reported, citing law enforcement sources familiar with the incident.

The marshals were not replaced on the flight, the sources said.

Amat said that was the first publicly known incident in which agents were removed from a flight for violating the dress code. The association represents about 1,300 air marshals.

Air marshals told the Plain Dealer they used to be encouraged to grow beards and dress casually to blend in with airport crowds.

The current policy was put in place in 2002 by the Federal Air Marshal Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. It says air marshals should wear "conservative" business attire such as sport coats and slacks. Grooming rules dictate the length of sideburns and the trim of an agent's hair and mustache.

Amat said boarding procedures that require marshals to check in with ticket agents also make them easy to spot. "The bottom line is no one should know who these guys are," Amat said.

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