Some federal air marshals are playing a high-tech game of hide-and-seek to dodge supervisors from inspecting their attire and ensuring compliance with a mandatory dress code.
“The ‘suit Nazis’ are out there, so the guys are hiding,” said one senior official with the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS).”It’s sort of an underground operation.”
The official said air marshals are turning off their government-issued cell phones so supervisors can’t find them for wardrobe inspections, and instead are using personal phones and beepers to send warnings when supervisors approach.
“It’s crazy, and it sounds funny, but it’s scary what the guys are having to do to dodge the suit Nazis,” the official said. “There is such a rift between the management and employees. They view us as the enemy, rather than al Qaeda.”
The crackdown to force the undercover officers to wear suits or sports coats, even on weekend or holiday travel, came after Thanksgiving Day, said senior officials and air marshals.
FAMS Director Tom Quinn paid a visit to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport that day to thank officers, but reportedly became angry when 28 marshals deplaned and only one was wearing a coat. Washington officials, however, say only a minority were not dressed properly.
Field offices were ordered to issue memos threatening disciplinary action for ignoring the dress code and marshals were told they would be suspended if caught flying without wearing the required coat.
Marshals call the incident the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre,” and many still refuse to dress in a manner they say exposes them to terrorists. Marshals say it is especially ridiculous to wear suits on Christmas or New Year’s Eve to most destinations.
National Directive FLT 6002, which establishes “standards of dress required of federal air marshals,” was issued by Mr. Quinn on May 9, 2002, and says marshals must wear “a business suit or sport coat with dress pants and tie, or sports coat with dress pants and collared shirt.”
FAMS spokesman Dave Adams says the supervisors were not assigned to airports to nail marshals for how they dress, but to ensure they do their job.
“The purpose is not to watch what people wear, but to supervise and be at the airport. They can’t supervise from behind their desks,” Mr. Adams said.
He added that the memos admonishing marshals for not adhering to the policies and the assignment of supervisors from every field office to airports has been rescinded. But officials and marshals say the memos have not been revoked and report daily interactions with supervisors to inspect their wardrobe.
The House Judiciary Committee has an open inquiry into the dress code.
That all may be moot because wardrobe changes were included in the intelligence reform bill signed by President Bush last week. One Judiciary Committee staffer said it is too soon to expect the dress code to be modified according to the legislation’s standards, but changes to ease the strict code are expected.
“Our job is to make sure the public is safe and that law enforcement is effective in their mission,” the staff member said.
One marshal said he was approached by a supervisor who was not wearing the required jacket, and was told his jacket was not up to policy. Another air marshal, who preboarded a plane as procedure dictates, was ordered out of the airplane bathroom for a suit inspection before takeoff, another marshal said.
“They exposed him by knocking on the door and saying they needed to see his suit coat,” the air marshal said. “They are jeopardizing everyone’s safety over this. It’s getting worse and worse.”