An undisclosed federal program called "Quiet Skies" has armed air marshals gathering intelligence on thousands of Americans at airports and on airplanes, according to a Boston Globe report published this weekend. Even with the program now public knowledge, all indications suggest that the TSA will continue to select new Quiet Skies targets and deploy federal air marshals to investigate them.
The Globe reports that a full list of criteria for Quiet Skies was unavailable, and that the TSA initially wouldn't confirm the program even exists.
After analyzing travel patterns, the TSA pulls intelligence from a number of sources - state and local law enforcement, federal agencies and global partners - before deciding to assign an air marshal. "When you're in a tube at 30,000 feet... it makes sense to put someone there", James Gregory argued. You have a camera.
Despite the controversy caused by the uncovering of the Quiet Skies program, TSA officials refused to say whether the initiative has lead to any arrests or the prevention of any planned terrorist attacks. The program is called Quiet Skies and although we're just hearing about it, it's been going on for years.
Federal air marshals have begun following ordinary U.S. citizens not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behavior under a new domestic surveillance program that is drawing criticism from within the agency.
"If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers' constitutional rights", he explained. Air marshals tasked with following those in the program then write minute-by-minute accounts of travelers' behavior and send that information to the TSA. Did he or she use a cellphone? "The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security". "Also, if they're using these types of digital dossiers to restrict people, putting them on flight lists or putting them under some type of other limitation, that could also raise a serious matter under the Constitution". The document leaked to the Globe says the program specifically targets travelers who are not on terrorist watch lists and are not under investigation by any agency.
"These concerns and the need for transparency 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", he said. It has been accused of doing little to enhance security while subjecting passengers to searches or questioning.
But TSA officials have said that ensuring public safety while keeping passengers moving has made their work hard. That's a lot of people to be keeping an eye on - people who, I will again remind you, aren't on any kind of government watchlist and haven't committed any real offense.
TSA has been repeatedly criticised over complaints of improper and intrusive screenings.
"This programme raises a whole host of civil liberties and profiling concerns", said Faiza Patel, co-director of the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice. He criticized the initiative as a "waste of taxpayer money".
The no-fly list, for example, grew from about 16 people in September 2001 to 64,000 people in 2014.