Air marshals see safety risk in hotel policy

They would have to reveal job to get lodging discount

August 23, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 marshal's discount."

So much for working undercover.

Under a new policy, when air marshals travel away from their home bases - as they often do - they will have to stay at a short list of selected hotels. They will also be required to identify themselves as air marshals to receive a special rate their agency has negotiated with the innkeepers.

That, as many air marshals see it, is a bureaucratic blow to their effort to maintain security and keep potential 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 Association wrote the Homeland Security Department this month.

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 in the present climate of heightened concern about terrorist attacks - along with recent revelations about the extent of al-Qaida's U.S. surveillance operations - 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 in and of themselves," attorney Mark L. Cohen wrote in the Aug. 5 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Los Angeles Times.

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

"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 interviewed for this article said the agency already has the ability to muster its troops at a moment's notice.

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

The marshal asked not to be identified, as did others who were interviewed, because they can be fired for talking to reporters without authorization.

Several air marshal field offices already require their agents to stay at the "preferred hotels," and the policy is expected to become mandatory around the United States, officials said.

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

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

It is unclear how much the agency would save from its $600 million annual budget by using select hotels.

Marshals now arrange their own lodgings. Federal employees are supposed to identify themselves to obtain the government discount. Some marshals show Transportation Department ID cards. Many marshals are also military reservists and use their Defense Department identification.

"We can get by without saying, `I am a federal air marshal,'" said the marshal from the East Coast. "I refuse to use the [new] list until I am ordered to."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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