TSA Sending Air Marshals All Over The US To Tail Non-Terrorist US Citizens
from the skies-must-be-almost-too-quiet dept
The TSA is still wasting time and money making no one any safer. Documents obtained by the Boston Globe show the agency is sending its most limited resource — air marshals — on useless trips around the nation to surveil people who may have done nothing more than pause in front of an airport shop window.
The previously undisclosed program, called “Quiet Skies,” specifically targets travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” according to a Transportation Security Administration bulletin in March.
The internal bulletin describes the program’s goal as thwarting threats to commercial aircraft “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists,” and gives the agency broad discretion over which air travelers to focus on and how closely they are tracked.
“Quiet Skies” relies on in-person surveillance of targets by “Flying Air Marshals” (referred to as FAMs in the program’s documents). The TSA doesn’t say very much about the program exposed by the docs leaked to the Globe. It prefers to point at its “broad discretion” to counteract terrorism — something its doesn’t do much in practice, but spends millions every year doing in theory.
“Whatever it takes” apparently includes adding people to watchlists simply because they’ve passed through certain foreign countries or are somehow “connected” to someone on the US government’s multiple watchlists, no matter how tenuous that link is. This has led to air marshals following flight attendants, business people, and even other law enforcement officers all over the country, jumping from plane to plane as often as their targets do.
Marshals are given a sheet to list observations of the target’s behavior while traveling, noting how often they sleep, use the restroom, access electronic devices, or otherwise do the things terrorists and non-terrorists alike do while on airplanes. But the surveillance extends to the airport itself. The checklist marshals are given also asks them to make note of “suspicious” behavior in airports, like changing directions when walking, looking into shop windows (supposedly checking reflections to see if they’re being followed), or simply having the misfortune of being the last person on the plane.
The TSA apparently feels this suspicionless tracking of US citizens is not just Constitutional but somehow doing something to keep Americans safer. The air marshals actually performing the tracking disagree.
“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,” one air marshal wrote in a text message to colleagues.
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. “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.”
That those on the inside of the TSA’s travel safety racket are questioning its means and methods isn’t a good sign. The expressed concern about possible legal/rights violations indicates the criteria for turning an average US citizen into a “Quiet Skies” target must be absurdly low. Other comments indicated that even if the program somehow manages to be fully legal and Constitutionally-compliant, it’s still a waste of resources.
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.
This latest exposure of TSA tactics shows the agency is far more interested in exploring the outer limits of its “broad discretion” than actually nailing down its primary task: keeping terrorists and explosives off airplanes. The US government maintains multiple terrorist watchlists — each of those the result of “broad discretion” — that provides the TSA with numerous targets for extra screening and increase in-person observation. Apparently, that’s not enough for an agency that has consistently failed to uphold its end of its post-9/11-attack mandates.