Friday, May 19, 2006

A two-year investigation found that Federal Air Marshal Service policies undermine marshals’ anonymity, and it indicates terror groups have done reconnaissance of in-flight security, says a congressional report obtained by The Washington Times.

The House Judiciary Committee report says a dress code endangers marshals by “potentially compromising [their] anonymity,” as does allowing them to check in and board in front of passengers.

It also said a policy requiring marshals to identify themselves to hotel clerks should be scrapped.

“Any policy or procedure that potentially compromises the identity of a federal air marshal is a policy or procedure that compromises commercial aviation and national security,” said the report, which has yet to be released.

FAMS spokesman Dave Adams declined comment on the report, titled “Lack of Anonymity at the Federal Air Marshal Service Compromises Aviation and National Security.”

The committee initiated the investigation in September 2004 into questionable policies and reports by The Times that suspected terrorists were probing security aboard U.S. airlines.

The report includes two new incidents of Middle Eastern-looking men apparently probing security. On Aug. 29, 2002, one man checked the cockpit, flight-deck door and locks, bumped two passengers who may have been the marshals with luggage “and then touched them in the chest with an open hand,” checking for a firearm, according to a FAMS incident report included in the report.

The suspect’s “activities have all the indications that he was attempting to determine if FAMS were on board the flight,” according to the FAMS.

On June 27, 2002, two persons boarded separately, then asked an air marshal to switch seats. The two began to converse in Arabic, took notes of first-class passengers, air crew and marshals, and later followed one marshal through the airport, the incident report says.

Thomas Quinn, FAMS director until his resignation in February, told the committee he “cannot substantiate that probing activities are occurring.”

The report does not mention other similar incidents or the highly publicized Northwest Flight 327 incident in 2004 when 14 Syrians, who said they were musicians, frightened the passengers and crew with behavior later described by numerous marshals and airline pilots as a probe or trial run.

“That investigation is classified and ongoing,” said committee spokesman Jeff Lungren.

Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General last month completed a 22-month investigation of the Syrian incident but the report remains classified.

Mr. Quinn told investigators that only a small percentage of “disgruntled amateurs who bring down the organization” opposed a dress code, hotel policy or boarding procedures.

But investigators discovered “numerous” complaints and suggestions had been documented within the agency.

“It is unacceptable for FAMS management to be oblivious to the problems facing their organization, either because there is no established system for managing requests for policy modifications or because there is a deliberate effort to ignore such requests,” the report said.

Numerous agents have been investigated or fired for questioning the agency’s policies, including Don Strange, former special agent in charge of the Atlanta field office who was fired after openly rebelling against the dress code.

“Disciplinary procedures at FAMS can be called disparate and, on their surface, can be characterized as unfair and even retaliatory,” the report said.

Mr. Quinn became so obsessive with dress code enforcement agents nicknamed him “Commander Queeg” after the character played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Caine Mutiny,” who becomes so obsessed over a missing quart of strawberries that his men think he is mentally unstable.

“The Washington Times reported in December of 2004 that Director Quinn was personally agitated when he visited Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thanksgiving Day 2004, because only one federal air marshal was wearing the required jacket. The committee questions the importance of wearing a suit jacket on Thanksgiving Day as an effective strategy for ensuring federal air marshals blend in with fellow passengers,” the report said.

“Director Quinn acted to follow up this incident by assigning supervisors to airports to perform dress inspections of federal air marshals as they enter or leave an airplane. The committee is concerned that this effort may not use the finite FAMS resources in the most efficient manner possible,” the report said.

The investigation also found that Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) costing millions of dollars “were inoperable and consistently failed to perform their intended functions.”

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