- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

A Department of Homeland Security advisory board is reviewing the Federal Air Marshal Service’s dress code and other “issues of national concern” that agents say prevent them from protecting airline passengers and have given rise to a House committee investigation.

The inquiry also will focus on hiring and promotion practices, airport security policies and the purchase of personal digital assistants, or PDAs, said a memo released last week to all U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees from Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia.

“The role of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) is vital to the protection of our homeland,” Mr. Garcia said in the memo. “Our air marshals are consummate professionals in fulfilling their critical DHS mission. I believe the work of this FAMS Advisory Board will further enhance the integration of the FAMS into ICE and improve overall job satisfaction within the FAMS work force.”

The panel is “something that has been contemplated for a while,” said Ross Knocke, spokesman for ICE. “It’s no secret that some issues are more public than others.”

A final report will not be issued, but recommendations and suggestions will be made after each meeting for Mr. Garcia to review.

“The meetings will be ongoing, and recommendations could be status quo or changes made,” Mr. Knocke said.

The board’s creation comes at a time when many rank-and-file air marshals are in open rebellion over what they call a “kill me first” dress policy, which they say puts them in jeopardy from terrorists who can single them out easily.

The House Judiciary Committee also is reviewing this and other policies.

The advisory board had its first meeting on Wednesday afternoon, just as Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary-designate, appeared for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Mr. Chertoff said in written testimony that he would “take action to maintain high morale within the FAMS work force and continue to develop and support initiatives to meet that goal across the department.”

FAMS policy requires men to wear jackets at all times in the airport, and agents are inspected by supervisors before they board and while they deplane. Marshals must identify themselves in front of passengers and pre-board in plain view. They must stay in certain hotels and identify themselves as air marshals to obtain government discounts.

Morale has plummeted at the two-year-old agency, where an estimated 500 air marshals have resigned, leaving fewer than 2,500 marshals to protect 25,000 to 35,000 flights per day.

Marshals say questioning the policies from within or taking concerns to the press, a member of Congress and a higher government official has resulted in retaliation. They said some marshals have been grounded, given desk jobs or forced to wash cars and paint walls.

President Bush mentioned the work of FAMS in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, surprising many agents who said it was a hopeful sign that changes will be implemented to allow them to continue their job as undercover officers.

“Our president’s words of encouragement, combined with the creation of this advisory board, gives me hope that positive changes are on the way,” one air marshal said.

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