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Discount May Cost Marshals Their Cover

August 22, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Travelers checking into budget hotels near major airports might be surprised to find themselves standing next to undercover federal air marshals. They'll be the guests asking for "the air marshals' discount."

So much for working undercover.

Under a new policy, when air marshals travel they will have to stay at a short list of selected hotels. They also will be required to identify themselves as air marshals to receive a special rate their agency has negotiated with the innkeepers -- a greater discount than the regular government price.

That, as many air marshals see it, is the latest bureaucratic blow to their effort to maintain security and keep terrorists from identifying them.

The hotel policy "has caused great anxiety ... as [marshals] worry about the various security risks involved in having a set, observable and discernible pattern of activity regarding their hotel accommodations," a lawyer for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn. wrote in a letter to the Homeland Security Department this month.

The dispute is the latest turn in an increasingly rancorous relationship between the marshals and their federal bosses. The marshals already were upset by rigid dress codes and grooming rules that they say make them so conspicuous among today's "dress-down" air travelers that passengers sometimes point them out publicly.

This month, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that two marshals were ordered off a Southwest Airlines flight departing from that city because a supervisor saw them without their sport coats on. That left the flight unguarded, the paper said. The air marshal service said the reason the marshals were taken off the plane had nothing to do with a dress code violation.

The labor-management feud is surprising because in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks air marshals got an enhanced role in the fight against terrorism. But marshals say that more recently, officials at Homeland Security appeared to see them as ordinary federal employees subject to rules and procedures handed from above -- sometimes with little apparent regard for the potential effect on their mission.

The issue of identifying themselves to hotel clerks and being required to stay together in a small number of hotels may not seem like a big deal, but amid heightened concern about terrorist attacks -- along with recent revelations about the extent of Al Qaeda's surveillance operations in the U.S. -- marshals say the problem is significant and unnecessary.

"If terrorists ... were to ascertain that a predetermined list of hotels was being used ... these sites would be high value targets," attorney Mark L. Cohen wrote in the Aug. 5 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. The association is a professional group representing investigators and officers from 50 federal agencies, including about 1,300 air marshals.

Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman David M. Adams defended the new policy, saying its chief aim was rapid access to marshals in an emergency. Budget savings would only be "a byproduct," he said.

"This policy is designed for the safety of our personnel, and so that during enhanced emergencies we can recall the marshals quickly while they are on mission deployment," Adams said.

But several marshals said the agency already had the ability to muster its troops at a moment's notice. Marshals are required to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they said. And they usually stay in lodgings near the airport.

"They have more than enough ways to get hold of us," a marshal based on the East Coast said. "We all have government cellphones and we all have PDAs that do e-mail."

The marshal spoke on condition of anonymity, as did others who were interviewed, because they could be fired for talking to reporters without authorization.

Several air marshal field offices already require their agents to stay at the so-called "preferred hotels," and the policy was expected to become mandatory across the country, officials said.

Marshals have been circulating e-mails from supervisors in Miami and Orlando, Fla., strongly implying that a push for savings was the central motivation for the changes.

"Hotels are added based on the cost savings to the government," said the Orlando memo. "You can complain all you want, but it isn't going away."

"This has been done, in part, to try to realize a cost savings for the Service," said the Miami memo, which did not offer any other rationale.

It was unclear how much the agency, with a $600-million annual budget, would save by using selected hotels. Marshals said they would have to switch from chains such as Sheraton and Marriott to less expensive ones such as Super 8 and Days Inn.

Supervisors "ordering [marshals] to identify themselves so they can get the special rate is nuts," a second marshal said.

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