- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

A new policy requires federal air marshals to stay in a limited number of hotels in groups for security purposes, but the officers say it is exposing their undercover status and putting them at risk.

In less than 10 minutes, The Washington Times was able to identify which three hotels near Washington Dulles International Airport and which three hotels near New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport are mandated under the new policy.

Additionally, a document listing the names of 24 undercover federal air marshals and their room numbers inadvertently was left on a hotel counter on Aug. 30 during the Republican National Convention in New York.

The mishandling of the information further underscores the security risks when agents are lumped together in large groups at three hotels, marshals say.

Agents must identify themselves as marshals, ask for the special rate for marshals and show their badges when checking in. Previously, marshals stayed in diverse locations and showed only a government identification card issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that does not identify them as undercover law-enforcement officers.

Dave Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said the marshals need to bunk in large groups in limited areas for “safety and security concerns.”

“We feel that during emergency conditions, we can rapidly recall officers and we need to have them close to an airport,” Mr. Adams said.

If cell phones are knocked out, as many were in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a supervisor can be dispatched to the hotel, Mr. Adams said.

“When this happens, we know to go to work, not sleep in our rooms,” one air marshal said.

A JFK Airport hotel rooming chart obtained by The Times lists the group name as “Federal Air Marshals #1,” then lists by name the room number assigned to each agent with the accompanying agents’ signatures.

Mr. Adams dismissed the roster’s handling as accidental.

“That could happen at any hotel. This is not indicative to hotel employees,” he said.

A second marshal said he was surprised the document was not more carefully guarded. “It’s like giving the house keys to the paperboy and saying, ‘Watch my house while I’m gone.’ It’s insane.”

The undercover status of marshals is compromised a half-dozen times a day by numerous policies, including a dress code mandating that they wear jackets, marshals say.

“The danger is everyone knows who we are. We are targets,” the second air marshal said.

Mr. Adams said all government employees must show identification when asking for a hotel government rate. The marshals agree, but say they must now show their law-enforcement identification.

The hotels are selected from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) list of lodgings that meets certain safety standards, Mr. Adams said. According to FEMA, more than 17,000 properties are on the approved list, which is based on two requirements: All rooms must have a smoke detector permanently connected to power, and the building must have a sprinkler system if it is higher than three stories.

Round-the-clock security is mandatory, Mr. Adams said. Before the policy was implemented, air marshals were “staying all over the place,” he said.

“They weren’t staying together as a team, and that can’t happen. We need to have them in the same hotel for their own safety reasons. If something happens, they can call their partner,” Mr. Adams said.

The General Services Administration did not respond to a question as to whether it is legal to restrict lodging for federal employees.

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