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Grounded Air Marshal Reinstated

Times Staff Writer

An air marshal who was grounded after criticizing the Federal Air Marshal Service over security issues was told last week to come back to work, a day after he and the ACLU filed a lawsuit that threatened to call wider attention to his complaints.

Frank Terreri contends a dress code requiring many agents to wear coats and ties makes them easy to spot in the mass of casually dressed passengers and undermines the marshals’ ability to protect passengers.

Officials said they grounded Terreri, president of an air marshal group, in October after he sent an e-mail to other marshals criticizing a colleague for providing People magazine with details of her operational routine. The e-mail had created a “hostile workplace” for the other marshal, officials said. They stripped Terreri of his badge and gun and confined him to desk duty for almost seven months.

Terreri’s supporters said he was being punished for his criticisms about security.

On Friday, the day after Terreri filed suit accusing the government of violating his 1st Amendment rights and endangering the public by stifling whistle-blowers, officials notified the Riverside man that he had been reinstated and should report for duty the following Monday.

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The Federal Air Marshal Service is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took over in February, has vowed to shake up the sprawling department, which has been plagued with bureaucratic problems since its creation two years ago in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Chertoff this month met with officials of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn. -- which is comprised of more than 20,000 federal agents, including 1,400 air marshals -- and heard about concerns over the dress code and other procedures that air marshals said could give away their identities.

Terreri, president of the association’s air marshals’ unit, did not participate in the meeting with Chertoff, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the air marshal service, David Adams, said the decision to return Terreri to active duty was not influenced by the lawsuit.

Adams also said that the investigation into Terreri’s conduct continued. But a source close to the inquiry said the probe had been completed and that the air marshal had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Terreri had been barred by federal rules from publicly discussing the marshal service or his case. But the lawsuit threatened to drag criticism of the agency into the spotlight. The air marshals’ concerns already are the subject of an inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee.

Peter Eliasberg, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer involved in the lawsuit, said of Terreri’s reinstatement: “The coincidence seems sort of astonishing.

“Why did it take seven months to do an investigation? There is either something wrong, or this is the most inefficient bureaucracy I’ve ever seen,” Eliasberg said. “Either way, it leaves me with no confidence in the Federal Air Marshal Service.”

Commenting on Adams’ assertion that Terreri remained under investigation, Jon Adler, a vice president of the Federal Law Officers Assn., said: “It indicates to me a reluctance to concede that they wrongly placed a very good marshal under investigation for frivolous allegations.”

Marshals say the dress code makes them stand out so much that passengers often give them thumbs-up signs. A General Accounting Office study of a period from 2001 to 2003 found that air marshals were recognized on average once a week.

Adams said there was no agencywide suit-and-tie rule. But marshals have said that field offices frequently enforce a “business dress” requirement, regardless of the season, destination or cabin class in which the marshal travels.

The marshals also have complained that policies on boarding and hotel check-ins make them unnecessarily conspicuous. At airports, marshals often must go through the exit gates to bypass security checkpoints, in full view of other passengers.

Some field offices require marshals to stay at specified hotels and ask for special discounts, which requires them to identify themselves to clerks.


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