- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

It’s unfortunate but true that most airline passengers can easily spot federal air marshals: They’re the overdressed ones, and they’re the ones flashing their badges to the flight staff. Asked at a June Senate hearing whether overt signals like these harm air marshals’ effectiveness, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge sensibly said yes. “It defeats the purpose,” he said. He vowed that Federal Air Marshal Service director Thomas Quinn would make covering marshal identities “his number one priority.”

If that’s true, Mr. Quinn has a strange way of doing it. As the Washington Times reported last week, Mr. Quinn is forcing air marshals to overdress. He reportedly grew angry when, in a surprise visit to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport over Thanksgiving, he discovered that 29 of 30 deplaning air marshals were dressed in varying states of compliance with the conspicuous marshal dress code. They looked, in short, like average travelers. That wasn’t to Mr. Quinn’s liking, so he began ordering supervisors in airports across the country to make sure on-duty marshals are wearing business suits or sport coats. Air marshals must wear “conservative male or female attire, such as that worn by business persons in first-class seating,” an internal memo explained. “You wear a sports coat, or you wear a suit coat, or you look for another job,” agents were reportedly told.

That begs a simple question: Why? Clearly air marshals can’t blend in if they’re wearing power suits to Miami in August. The marshals themselves have been trying to tell this to Federal Air Marshal Service higher-ups for years, to no avail. Business attire “makes them stick out like a sore thumb,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, in 2002. But somehow Mr. Quinn and his associates didn’t get the message back then, and they still don’t get it now. Somehow, they think that wearing a suit makes a marshal less conspicuous. Marshals “will present a professional image and blend into their environment,” another memo says. But that’s doubtful. In reality, even in first class, due to contemporary dishabille dress habits, they can do one or the other, but not both.

The good news is that the intelligence bill passed Wednesday may force Mr. Quinn and his associates to loosen up a bit. Buried in the text of the bill is a clause on securing federal air marshal identities which stipulates that “no procedure, guideline, rule, regulation, or other policy shall expose the identity of an air marshal to anyone other than those designated by the Secretary.” A forced and conspicuous dress code certainly qualifies as such a policy. Let’s hope our lawmakers agree and hold the marshal service to it. A little common sense could go a long way in this case.

While they’re at it, they might also consider the havoc that governmental reorganization can wreak on a federal agency like Mr. Quinn’s, because dress isn’t the only problem with the Marshal Service. The marshals have been bumped around over the last few years like few other government agencies, and that can’t be good for efficacy or morale. For decades, the marshals were part of the Federal Aviation Administration, but after Sept. 11 they were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration.

Then, last year, they were transferred again, this time being lumped into TSA’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division. In a classified hearing last month in the House Judiciary Committee, committee members reportedly asked tough questions about marshal morale and the number of supervisors who have quit the service. Some problems doubtlessly owe to ill-conceived policies like the dress code. But it’s equally doubtless that the constant bureaucratic reshuffling has contributed, too. That’s something to keep in mind the next time Washington tries to fix our homeland security problems by moving agencies around. In the meantime, the marshals can head in the right direction with a looser, disguise-friendly dress code.

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