What do a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, a federal law enforcement officer, and a businesswoman who recently traveled through Turkey all have in common? They’ve all been trailed by Federal Air Marshals in a new program called Quiet Skies.
Jana Winter of the Boston Globe broke the story on a clandestine Transportation Security Adminstation (TSA) program called Quiet Skies. The broad goal of the program is to “thwart threats to commercial aircraft…posed by unknown or partially known terrorists.” A TSA internal bulletin states the specific purpose of Quiet Skies is to decrease threats by “unknown or partially known terrorists; and to identify and provide enhanced screening to higher risk travelers before they board aircraft based on analysis of terrorist travel trends, tradecraft and associations.”
Put simply, it means the agency has the authority to trail you even without any suspicion of wrongdoing. Furthermore, the agency was granted broad discretion in picking and choosing who it would target for further investigation. Something as simple as transit in Istanbul, Doha, or Abu Dhabi could make you a Quiet Skies candidate. Flying Turkish Airlines is enough to make you a terrorist suspect!
If your travel patterns trigger a red flag, a team of agents (2+) may be assigned to trail you:
The teams track citizens on domestic flights, to or from dozens of cities big and small — such as Boston and Harrisburg, Pa., Washington, D.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. — taking notes on whether travelers use a phone, go to the bathroom, chat with others, or change clothes, according to documents and people within the department.
This isn’t a joke. Someone may actually be taking notes as to whether I shave on a plane or am taking pictures of my airline meals. You can read the official TSA internal document here (.pdf).
40-50 passengers per day fall under the Quiet Skies program with Air Marshals tracking about 35 per day.
I’ve been no fan of the TSA over the years, but muted my criticism after the agency made adjustments to its “nude-o-scope” full body scanners in 2011 and has made airport security generally painless with PreCheck.
> Analysis: TSA Diffuses Full Body Scanner Privacy Concerns
But this new program is dangerous. The dormant political scientist and constitutional lawyer within me cringes at Quiet Skies and the notion that my tax dollars are being used to follow innocent passengers across the country.
Hugh Handeyside of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project told the Globe:
These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing. If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers’ constitutional rights. These concerns are all the more acute because of TSA’s track record of using unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor travelers who have done nothing wrong.
I’m more cynical than Mr. Handeyside. I am troubled greatly by surveillance absent suspected wrongdoing, but I doubt the TSA is using this program as an indirect way to target ethnic and religious minorities. Instead, I think the agency is using it as yet another pathetic excuse to justify its existence. This is the agency that spends at least $800MN/year and cannot explain how it has made travel safer. View from the Wing lists a litancy of other reasons the agency should be reformed or disbanded.
One Air Marhsal told the Globe, “What we are doing [in Quiet Skies] is troubling and raising some serious questions as to the validity and legality of what we are doing and how we are doing it.” Asked to trail a Southwest Airlines FA, another said, “Jeez we need to have an easy way to document this nonsense. Congress needs to know that it’s gone from bad to worse.” Indeed it does. But will Congress do anything about it?
Will anyone step up and defend the TSA Quiet Skies program?