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A Secret TSA Program Has Been Monitoring American Travelers Who Aren't On Any Watch Lists

A Secret TSA Program Has Been Monitoring American Travelers Who Aren't On Any Watch Lists
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Updated 2 weeks ago

As they say, somebody is always watching. In this case, it’s the Transportation Security Administration. 

Since 2010, the TSA’s “Quiet Skies” program has monitored and mitigated threats “posted by unknown or partially-known terrorists.” Federal air marshals identify suspicious characters based on travel history and patterns and specifically pinpoint individuals who may be affiliated with someone on a watch list.

Once an individual falls under the watchful eye of the Quiet Skies program, federal air marshals watch that person at the airport and in-flight, noting their mannerisms and things like how often they use the bathroom, how many hours they sleep, whether they have body odor, fidget and seem uncomfortable, use a phone, and more.

The Quiet Skies program had been previously undisclosed and some of the selection criteria that determines if a traveler will be watched has remained top secret to avoid compromising the program. When a passenger is selected for Quiet Skies monitoring, a team of air marshals is placed on their flight and provided details including their place of birth.

In interviews and internal documents shared with the Boston Globe, it was revealed that not everyone involved in the program approves of it. Some air marshals called the program ineffective and expensive, but the TSA likens it to local law enforcement.

“We are no different than the cop on the corner who is placed there because there is an increased possibility that something might happen,” agency spokesman James Gregory said in an interview with The Washington Post

Critics of the program think differently, however. “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,” read one text from an air marshal.

The concern over wasting time and resources can be viewed as valid, especially after it was revealed that an air marshal had been ordered to watch a working Southwest Airlines flight attendant. 

Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, has spoken out about the program, stating the concern over whether the TSA is using race or religion to single out travelers. 

Even the president of the Air Marshal Association, John Casaretti, had some scolding words about Quiet Skies. “The Air Marshal Association believes that missions based on recognized intelligence, or in support of ongoing federal investigations, is the proper criteria for flight scheduling. Currently, the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable.”

Despite its detractors and the increased scrutiny of Quiet Skies and the TSA, stands behind its program. “When you’re in a tube at 30,000 feet… it makes sense to put someone there,” James Gregory argued.

The National Security Agency has already made people skittish about unwarranted and illegal monitoring and you can bet that Quiet Skies will garner the same critiques for the TSA.