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.

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Comments on “TSA Sending Air Marshals All Over The US To Tail Non-Terrorist US Citizens”

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44 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Normal isn't so normal anymore

How dare those potential terrorists behave like normal people? Given enough normal we will wind up surveilling everyone. Our next step is to ask Congress to authorize hiring half the country, so that we can surveil the other half, which will do wonders for unemployment but not much for the economy.

Our biggest problem will be finding those willing to do the work who are not already on our terrorist watchlists, which won’t be easy as we add people for overly normal behavior. We are also seeking companies who will help us to define a new normal. This will help us to refine (aka add) who should be watched.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Normal isn't so normal anymore

Aren’t all branches of law enforcement being trained to treat EVERYONE as a potential terrorist even around the world? It seems highly ironic and maybe somewhat both a disappointment for some and a relief for others that maybe .000000001 % of those law enforcement wonders will ever look a terrorist in the face.

Anonymous Hero says:

Typo

> That those on the inside of the TSA’s travel safety racket are questioning its means and methods isn’t a good sign.

There’s a typo in the above sentence. It’s a *great* sign that those inside of the safety racket are questioning its means and methods. The alternative is that they go along with this ridiculousness without complaint.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Next time I go to the airport instead of getting lost, shopping, or being late I’m going to do more normal things like wave my gun in the air, talk openly about the bombs in my luggage, and sell part of the drugs I’m muling at the gate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Useless

Documents obtained by the Boston Globe show the agency is sending its most limited resource — air marshals — on useless trips around the nation

You could’ve stopped there. That’s all they’ve ever done since the beginning of the program. The recent news is just a different kind of uselessness.

They occasionally arrest an illegal immigrant or drunkard, when they’re not drunk themselves ($200 million per arrest!). They killed a guy once, for reasons not corroborated by witnesses. There’s zero evidence they’re making anyone safer; US airspace is no safer than the average western country’s.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Is this an example of function creep?

It’s a common problem among our law enforcement agencies: Crime is low, but instead of reducing the size of the agency, they expand crime-detecting activities and definitions of crime.

Then they focus on the easier, less dangerous, less tedious activities over what we call police work, since they less often actually lead to a violent criminal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Loss of respect

And then these government agencies wonder why the public doesn’t respect them

What? This isn’t a "loss of respect" unless the public ever respected the TSA (I don’t think so), and what evidence do you have that they care whether people respect them? I doubt this is keeping them up at night.

Anonymous Coward says:

Only 2 pieces this morning? Minions on strike for more gruel?

Welcome to the New Attenuated Techdirt! Less every day!

You may be able to cast Raise The Dead and get a few zombies to simulate interest, but that doesn’t solve your CONTENT DRAW problem, now does it?

Techdirt’s problem is not lack of topics, it’s that so few fit its template of piracy winning, Trump about to be impeached, and Google’s magnanimous benefaction.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Fourth Amendment violations

The spirit of the Fourth Amendment is violated much in the same way that it is by ALPRs used at shopping malls, parking lots and checkpoints along the freeways. There’s an expectation of privacy, which includes the government not taking a special interest in individuals without cause.

Once you’re on a list that restricts whether you fly, or if you are automatically subject to additional search or where you can go, it’s your Fifth Amendment rights being violated.

Personanongrata says:

Security Theater for Frogs

TSA Sending Air Marshals All Over The US To Tail Non-Terrorist US Citizens

How many terrorists has TSA uncovered in almost 17 years of molesting roughly 11 billion air travelers?

https://www.bts.dot.gov/newsroom/2017-annual-and-december-us-airline-traffic-data

Zero. (If the costumed tax feeders actually uncovered a terrorist or a terror plot it would be plastered on the front page of every propaganda rag in the nation and the lead story of every nightly newscast. We would never be allowed to forget the safety our gate rapists have secured in our name).

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/security-theater-at-its-purest-tsa-and-bdos/60032/

http://disinfo.com/2012/03/has-the-tsa-ever-foiled-a-terrorist-plot/

There have been zero terrorists interdicted by TSA although many travelers have been caught with guns/knives and other so-called "contraband".

TSA gate rape at the airport has nothing to do with terrorists (yes it is the goverments specious justification behind the stringent zero tolerance security theater) and everything to do with conditioning. Conditioning people to accept suspicion less, intrusive and arbitrary government searches of themselves and their property upon command.

TSA security theater has spread from airports, to train/bus stations, concerts/sport arenas and other what government labels national security events.

https://merionwest.com/2017/05/10/should-we-even-have-the-tsa/

Problem is most people are so well conditioned to their learned helplessness they do not care one iota and endure TSA gate rape as the price of convenience or entertainment.

Airlines companies operate on very tight financial margins and even a limited boycott would hit them where it hurts most their bottom lines. A few weeks of loses due to TSA gate rape would have these companies squealing like stuck pigs and clamoring to the US government for relief.

Remember TSA has uncovered zero terrorists and zero terror plots after screening over 11 billion passengers.

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