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US air marshals ditch suits, become natives

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Aug 25: The armed undercover officers who protect US airlines against attack no longer have to fear being overdressed. They've been told they can ditch their suits for outfits that blend in with their fellow travelers'.

The director of the Federal Air Marshal Service relaxed a strict dress code and some of other rules today, addressing gnawing problems at an organisation that has expanded quickly since 2001 but been plagued by poor morale.

On Septembe 11, 2001, there were only 33 air marshals, but now armed law enforcement officials disguised as passengers are deployed on thousands of US airline flights each week. Their actual number is classified, but officials say it is in the thousands.

Dana Brown, who has been seeking to improve working conditions since he took over as the agency's director earlier this year, said that, as of September 1, marshals can choose what to wear on flights.

''The manner of dress should allow you to blend in and not direct attention to yourself, as well as be sufficiently functional to enable you to conduct your law enforcement responsibilities, and effectively conceal your duty equipment,'' he said in a memo to air marshals that was obtained by Reuters.

The new rules also will allow the air marshals to opt out of staying at one hotel.

Brown's predecessor Thomas Quinn, who was charged with beefing up the air marshal service after the September 11 hijackings, had faced resistance from disgruntled air marshals who said their undercover status was compromised by rules like the stringent dress code.

They complained that passengers, particularly on flights to vacation destinations or on low-budget airlines, could easily identify them because they were clean cut and dressed in business attire.

Air marshals also criticized policies that made them identify themselves at the airport, and sometimes at hotels. Brown said he could not immediately change boarding procedures, which have been criticised for forcing marshals to enter the jetway to the airplane in full view of passengers waiting to board.

A critical congressional report in May urged the service to change to help ensure the air marshals can do their job properly.

''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,'' the report said.


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