Monday, September 21, 2020

Boston Globe: Does TSA’s ‘Quiet Skies’ Tracks US Citizens Like Terrorists?

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The Transportation Security Administration, in a previously undisclosed program call “Quiet Skies,” is gathering information on U.S. citizens who are neither under any investigation nor in the terrorist screening database, which is costly, time consuming, and raises potential privacy concerns, according to The Boston Globe.

“Beyond the legalities, some air marshals believe ‘Quiet Skies’ is not a sound use of limited agency resources,” the Globe reported. “Several air marshals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, told the Globe the program wastes taxpayer dollars and makes the country less safe because attention and resources are diverted away from legitimate, potential threats.”

The program delves into the minutiae of air travel, including “whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a ‘jump’ in their Adam’s apple or a ‘cold penetrating stare,’ among other behaviors,” according to government documents reviewed by 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,” an air marshal texted colleagues, according to the Globe.

A TSA bulletin in March stated the program specifically targets travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base” with the intent of thwarting airline threats “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists,” allowing “the agency broad discretion over which air travelers to focus on and how closely they are tracked,” per the Globe.

While the program has solid intent, but “it is a time-consuming and costly assignment, they say, which saps their ability to do more vital law enforcement work,” according to the report.

“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project Hugh Handeyside told the Globe.

“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.”


When contacted, the TSA defended its efforts to deter potential acts of terror in a written statement to the Globe, but refused to confirm details of the program or whether any threats have been thwarted, because releasing such information “would make passengers less safe,” spokesman James Gregory wrote.

The March bulletin outlined “15 rules to screen passengers,” according to the Globe, and “‘rules may target’ people whose travel patterns or behaviors match those of known or suspected terrorists, or people ‘possibly affiliated’ with someone on a watch list.”

“When someone on the Quiet Skies list is selected for surveillance, a team of air marshals is placed on the person’s next flight,” the Globe reported. “The team receives a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth — about the target, according to agency documents.

“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.”

There are about 40 to 50 “Quiet Skies” targets surveilled daily, according to TSA documents, per the report.

“In late May, an air marshal complained to colleagues about having just surveilled a working Southwest Airlines flight attendant as part of a ‘Quiet Skies’ mission,” the Globe reported, “‘Cannot make this up,’ the air marshal wrote in a message.

“One colleague replied: ‘jeez we need to have an easy way to document this nonsense. Congress needs to know that it’s gone from bad to worse.'”

TSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens might lead to a “transformative legal fight,” according to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

“If this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power,” Turley told the Globe. “But if it’s U.S. citizens — U.S. citizens don’t lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet.

“There may be indeed constitutional issues here depending on how restrictive or intrusive these measures are.”


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