The air marshals' mess
December 15, 2004
Can you imagine if an al Qaeda bureaucrat had ordered the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists to wear "I heart Osama" T-shirts when they embarked on their murderous flights?
No idiot would send his men on a covert mission wearing clothes that would so blatantly give them away, right?
Wrong. Meet Federal Air Marshal Service Director Thomas Quinn. The man in charge of our in-flight cops, who are supposed to be spying secretly on would-be terrorist hijackers, refuses to allow his employees to dress undercover. Quinn insists that air marshals abide by military-style grooming standards and a rigid business dress policy regardless of weather, time of year or seating arrangement. He wants them to look PROFESSIONAL.
That means collared shirts and sports coats -- even if a pair of marshals is traveling in coach from Los Angeles to Orlando.
As The Washington Times recently reported, Quinn blew his top on Thanksgiving when he spotted nearly 30 marshals at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., in violation of his insipid dress code. Some were reportedly threatened with suspension.
This nonsense has been going on for two years. The result is that the federal government has not made air travel any safer, and is instead endangering the people who are supposed to be protecting us. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents over 22,000 federal agents including air marshals, notes that civilian passengers have publicly outed marshals on countless flights since the Sept. 11 attacks. Air marshals have recounted receiving thumbs-ups and thanks from travelers nationwide. No doubt al Qaeda's operatives who are surveilling flights are mumbling thanks under their breath, too.
Indeed, on an infamous American Airlines Flight 1438 from Chicago to Miami, two air marshals, dressed conspicuously in their professionally mandated suits, received the following greeting from a passenger walking down the aisle: "Oh, I see we have air marshals on board!"
Another air marshal working out of the Las Vegas field office, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told the government watchdog group Airline Passengers for Safer Skies (APSS): "Under the current policies of Director Quinn, airline passengers are actually safer flying on aircraft that do not have air marshals on them." Marshals refer darkly to Quinn's dress requirements as the "kill-me-first dress-code policy." The Las Vegas field officer remarked: "If all the passengers know we are carrying the guns on the plane, then so do the terrorists -- we just don't want to get our throats slit."
Quinn's response to critics? Kill the messengers! As online journalist Annie Jacobsen reported in September, the air marshals service threatened to take action against the passenger who pointed out the marshals made vulnerable by Quinn's own dress-code policy. The passenger, Quinn protested, had disclosed "sensitive security information." Meanwhile, according to APSS, Quinn himself participated in a NBC Nightly News segment that revealed classified and sensitive information on marshals' boarding procedures, credentials, equipment and look-out criteria.
Quinn spent two decades at the Secret Service before taking over the air marshals service, which may explain his dangerous fashion taste for the Men in Black uniforms. According to several sources inside the agency, Quinn has used his position to hire several former Secret Service cronies -- who have plenty of experience guarding high-profile politicians and celebrities, but no clue about what it takes to blend in and be effective watchdogs in the air.
There is reportedly a provision in the intelligence reform bill passed last week that will put Quinn's kill-me-first dress policy on ice. But it's not enough. If President Bush wants to rescue airline safety from the abysmal national joke that it has become, the first thing he should do is fire Thomas Quinn before the end of the year. How many more people will die before we learn that bureaucracy and security don't mix?