Exposure Of Secret TSA Surveillance Program Nets The Government More Terrorist Watchlist Litigation

from the clearly-audible-responses-to-the-'Quite-Skies'-program dept

The recent exposure of the TSA’s “Quiet Skies” program by the Boston Globe is leading to more terrorist watchlist litigation. The “Quiet Skies” program sends air marshals all over the US to watch travelers swallow, shop, use the restroom, and stare at things. It’s suspicionless surveillance even the air marshals disagree with, with some quoted by the Globe calling the program a worthless waste of tax dollars, if not just a vehicle for repeated Constitutional violations.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is using this information in two of its lawsuits against the government. Its lawsuit against the Terrorist Screening Center — which originated in 2016 — will hopefully be aided by the Globe’s reporting. A motion to compel discovery [PDF] seeks details on the program for use in this litigation. The filing notes the government continues to hide information about its many watchlists from the plaintiffs it represents, forcing it to rely on leaked documents to obtain information it has already requested from the government.

Throughout discovery, Plaintiffs have sought to determine, at the very least, the broad outlines of the watchlisting system. And yet, throughout discovery, Defendants have kept TSA’s Quiet Skies program hidden. Even though all indicators show that Quiet Skies is responsible for engulfing thousands of innocent Americans within the watchlisting system, the program appears in no document produced to Plaintiffs nor in any answers to Plaintiffs’ discovery questions. It was conveniently left out and not referenced; deposition questions which would have unmasked it were blocked. With this latest news, the Court should conclude that Defendants continue to improperly withhold basic watchlist information.

The motion points out this exposed secret watchlist likely explains the actions observed by one of its clients — a possible “Quiet Skies” target — when traveling. (It should be noted that fliers noticing they’re being tailed by someone is also considered suspicious activity, especially if the flier does anything to ditch the tail or otherwise expose the surveillance.)

Plaintiff El-Shwehdi reports that once at JFK he was “shadowed” by what appeared to be a plainclothes security officer. The man followed him “with a clipboard with some paper” from “near the ticket counter,” through security, continuing while El-Shwehdi put back on his belt and shoes, and kept up the monitoring for the next “two hours” in the boarding area. The plainclothes man even tailed El-Shwehdi when he went to the bathroom, and when he went to get soup. These detailed descriptions of constant monitoring by an undercover officer map precisely onto Quiet Skies.

CAIR’s new lawsuit over terrorist watchlists targets a few dozen government officials and agencies, including the FBI, DHS, TSA, TSC (Terrorist Screening Center), DOJ, and CBP. The complaint [PDF] alleges the government engages in routine suspicionless surveillance of US citizens and lawful residents, resulting in a number of harmful outcomes, including a lifetime of government snooping and severe curtailment of personal freedoms.

Through their watchlisting system, the federal government makes it known— to every law enforcement agency in the country, every part of the federal government, more than 60 foreign countries, an unknown number of private companies, international bodies, and other third parties—that the Plaintiffs should be treated as dangerous threats. The Plaintiffs’ friends, family, and others with whom the Plaintiffs associate are punished for their relationship with a watchlisting system’s target.

The Defendants know that their watchlisting system has never prevented an act of terrorism inside the United States and is completely ineffective, but they continue to expand it anyways.

Plaintiffs and almost all others targeted by the watchlisting system have never been arrested, charged, or convicted of any type of terrorism-related offense. Nonetheless, the federal government has designated them as “known or suspected terrorists,” wreaking havoc on Plaintiffs’ personal, religious and professional lives.

Stuff that’s legal for Americans to do — traveling to the Mideast, speaking Arabic, worshiping at mosques — are all considered suspicious activities by those running the watchlists. This must be discriminatory behavior since it certainly isn’t justified by any paperwork or research the government’s been able to produce.

Leaked government documents as well as public governmental reports, reveal that the federal government’s terrorist watchlisting system is discriminatory, standardless, and devoid of adequate procedures. These documents include the March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance (Exhibit 1), the Directorate of Terrorist Identities (DTI): Strategic Accomplishments 2013 (Exhibit 2), the Department of Justice’s March 2014 Audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Management of Terrorist Watchlist (Exhibit 3), and a 2018 informational bulletin on the “Quiet Skies” program (Exhibit 4).

The fact that watchlisting radiates outward from targets means children, relatives, friends, business associates, and fellow worshipers may all be added to the government’s lists simply because they have frequent contact with a target. This creates exponential expansions of watchlists with each new “connection” added, all without individual, particularized suspicion.

Recourse for targeted travelers is limited and restricted to border crossings. For those targeted and traveling from place to place in the US, there’s no way to challenge the TSA’s “Quiet Skies” watchlist placement. And, as the lawsuit notes, the government hasn’t been forthcoming about its many watchlists, so those suing may be on others they can’t even begin to challenge because no one has acknowledged their existence.

This is an extremely unfortunate state of affairs for a country that used to welcome immigrants from around the world and held itself up as the standard bearer for personal freedoms. Capitalizing on a horrific tragedy, the government as a whole has used the specter of terrorism to amass and consolidate power. The multiple secret watchlists compiled without articulable suspicion is only one symptom of the country’s failure to handle a terrorist attack in a manner befitting the leader of the free world.

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Comments on “Exposure Of Secret TSA Surveillance Program Nets The Government More Terrorist Watchlist Litigation”

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David says:

"leader of the free world"?

Sorry, try something like "heavyweight of the First World" instead. The U.S. trails other countries regarding "free" (just take a look at the statistics Amnesty International compiles) and takes a dim view regarding international human rights. Many of the accents it sets have nothing to do with "leading" but rather with throwing its indisputable weight around.

And the current president rather openly moves the balance of its policies further from "leading" to "bullying".

Anonymous Coward says:


“… the government continues to hide information”

,,, and government/TSA employees will continue to do so with no fear of any personal consequences.
This lawsuit will go nowhere, with U.S. taxpayers paying all TSA legal costs.
But within a year or so, the TSA bureaucrats will quietly end their QuietSkies origram, as even they realize its stupidity.
New, dumber, and even more intrusive TSA programs will be invented.

We now have mountains of direct evidence that U.S. courts will not enforce the 4th Amnendment against Federal security agencies.
What’s your plan to reclaim the BillofRights in face of the (very effective) government onslaught against it ?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

We made these massive haystacks, eventually we will find a needle & it’ll totes be worth it!
Look at the FBI and all of the plots they stop!! Just don’t look to close to notice they are all created & driven by the FBI, usually targeting those with mental impairment or other issues that a “friend” can cultivate into wanting to join a plot… even if the FBI has to provide the $20 to “prove” sending aid to terrorists.

We refuse to admit that the cogs of justice, before & much more after 9/11, were trained that all brown people were a danger. Only when people exposed trainers & the books adopted by many divisions were hardly veiled all Muslims are terrorists & must be stopped, were the books removed from training material… but I don’t remember there being a huge retraining program to undo the damage.

A lot of people had no problem with different groups infiltrating mosques to make sure there were no terrorists hiding inside, but I don’t remember these programs when those good Christians were aiding clinic bombers. If word got out that the FBI was secretly monitoring everyone who attended a mega-church… how fast do you think the lawsuits would be filed & heads rolling??

Nothing “we” have done has made us safer, we get our balls examined for cancer to get on a plane… ground staff were running drugs & one offered to get other things like weapons onto planes for the right price.

The focus is always on what happened previously & what they saw on a tv show or in a movie rather than actual events. Hell some politician in Toledo tried to float the idea of implanting GPS chips into those accused of crimes b/c he saw a tv show where a bad guy was able to remove the ankle monitor easily.

We’ve reach the peak of stupidity, someone non-ironically suggesting we chip those who are merely accused so we can track them 24/7. We need to stop wasting money on programs like this & remember when you claim they hate us for our freedoms, you’ve removed more of our freedoms than anyone else. Welcome to the Constitution Free Zone, please drop trou, bendover and cough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Did you ever read that book about people so stupid they lost their ability to contribute to the gene pool? Like the guy who cleaned the inside of gas trucks, which was dark, so he used a lighter as a light? Or the guy that liked his girlfriend to put a shotgun on his balls and hear the trigger click because he thought it was exciting? Or the guy that fought with his girlfriend, called the police, and since he needed a reason to explain hitting her, stabbed himself, once, piercing his own heart. I love those stories, is that what you meant?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Ok interesting. You say all the plots stopped by the FBI are created and driven by the FBI. Really? That’s a pretty strong statement, are you sure about it? All?

You say the cogs of justice were trained that all brown people were a danger. Really? Russians are white, they’re getting a lot of attention. Are black people OK now and it’s only brown people being repressed? I thought every minority was suffering, it seems selfish of you to focus on brown people. How about Gays and Trans-gender white and yellow people, they have their own cogs, right? Are you non-inclusive? That’s bad.

You say we’ve reached the peak of stupidity. I don’t know, I saw something really cool on TV the other day, they were talking about Reagan. The reporter said “This is a man that will literally give you the shirt off his back. Then, in his undershirt, will sign legislation that takes money away from mothers to feed their infants”. That sounds pretty terrible. Are you sure we are “peaking” now? American has always looked a little crazy if you listen to Democrats describe Republicans. Dating back to Lincoln – that was a Democrat that shot him, right? That was Johnny’s Depp’s joke, very funny.

America is designed to allow stupidity, and allow correction. One day we display stupidity, the next correct, and the overall result is we are the leader of the free world, as the author of the article readily acknowledges.

We are great beyond words. We are incomparable to anyone, we stand head and shoulders above the world.

We eat soup off other country’s heads, we’re so tall and proud. Really.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

They indicted someone with an IQ below 60, a Judge ripped them a new asshole.
No one can tell a real plot from a fake one. I guess the real way to tell is how much followup press there is once all the facts come out after the giant headlines. These are only slightly better than the we stopped something, but can’t say anything about it…

There was a trainer who had a book that was on the FBI shelves that remained there until someone pointed out it was all kinds of insane racist. (Hey look, you can read the article here).

Will you be the first one to be chipped so you can be tracked if you are merely accused of a crime?

We like to think we are great, but we’re about 2 seconds from being a banana republic.

While you’d like it to be a D v R thing… its not. We have stupid shit on both sides & people without the will to do whats right to avoid bad soundbites or offending a xenophobic base they riled up who will turn on them sooner or later. They’ve driven the country into the ground, its time we demand better.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Ok, well, I don’t agree with some of the things that you said, but maybe I will just focus on what I do agree with. There is stupid shit from both sides, I am with you there. Without the will to do what’s right to avoid bad sound bites- still with you, I agree with that. Or offending a xenophobic base they riled up that will turn on them sooner or later – I agree with that, too, except I think xenophobic is an unnecessary qualifier.

Demand better when you vote, right, would you agree with that?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

We deserve better from them.

We can disagree, I won’t cry… and I am willing to bet somewhere in the middle of what we disagree on there are some points we might agree upon. The world isn’t black and white absolutes (despite what the talking heads tell us) it needs to be shades of grey.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I also think the haystack analogy was particularly stupid. If you want to find a needle in a haystack, you want the haystack to be as small as possible.

It’s a toss-up between stupidity or dishonesty. Are the ‘collect it all!’ people stupid by grabbing more than they can actually do something with in a time-frame that actually matters, or are they lying about why they’re grabbing it?

Neither option are exactly comforting, yet the fact that ‘they’re idiots’ is the better possibility is just all sorts of worrisome and/or disturbing.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

They are capturing petabytes of data, they are the largest haystacks you can imagine.

The analogy is perfect, they want MOAR data all the time so they can find the bad guys… except they miss a lot of things.
If we just let them capture 1 more set of data we’ll be safe…
See Also: Thwarted terrorist on plane used x. In a month we are being checked or denied having things that might be those. Shoes off, belts off, cocks out, spread your cheeks, lemme squeeze this ostomey bag to check for a bomb and cover you in shit, lets call the cops because the 6yr old wanted grandma when you separated her to be felt up.

For all of the data they collect… how come we’ve had coordinated shootings, alleged human trafficking, drug deals, etc etc that continue unabated… but we have CI’s in mosques checking on the scary brown people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

From their point of thinking, you can’t tell up front if the hay pile even has a needle so you had better get more hay because one of those piles is bound to have the needle.

Its flawed logic because you assume the needle is always there and you just need a little more time and resources to find it.

I do believe the needles exist in a hay pile somewhere in the world the problem is the lookers want all the hay first instead of segregating the piles down to the most likely ones that contain the needles.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The logic behind “collect it all” is something like: we can only search hay when it’s in a haystack, and if we leave too much hay out of the haystack we risk also leaving the needle out of the haystack, so that no matter how much searching of the haystack we do we’ll never find the needle.

Therefore, in order to guarantee that any needles which exist are in the haystack to be found, we need the haystack to include as much of the hay as possible.

The logic is even sound, really. It just ignores A: the decrease in searching effectiveness when using the same techniques to search a much larger haystack, and B: the trade-offs in other areas that result from making the haystack bigger.

Anonymous Coward says:

Disillusion: A Force for Change

"…a country that used to welcome immigrants from around the world and held itself up as the standard bearer for personal freedoms."

We never welcomed immigrants from around the the world. We didn’t even welcome all nationalities, religions, and creeds of white, northern Europeans. Personal freedoms were pretty reliably reserved for property-owning, white people.

Rising public disillusion fueled by modern media coverage, solid journalism, and whistle-blowing MAY lead to change that creates real "welcome" and "personal freedoms," but it won’t be a "return to" – it will be a "sheesh, finally!"

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Disillusion: A Force for Change

Really? Who did we leave out? North Korea, maybe, I could understand that. We didn’t welcome creeds? What creed are you referring to?

“Personal freedoms were pretty reliably reserved for property-owning white people”. Did you mean to say “Taxes” instead of “Personal freedoms”? Or if it wasn’t a typo, which freedom were you referring to?

Modern Media Coverage, that’s pretty much a joke – look at the opinion polls about Modern Media: 1 in 8 approve, something like that. The disillusion with WITH the media, not reported by the media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Disillusion: A Force for Change

That’s really funny. I learned critical thinking at about age 7, as I recall. When I watched the news, I would talk to my father using the words “Well, They said …”, and he would ask “Who, exactly are They?”. That is when I understood that all thinking and all opinions are relative. Except here, of course, here there is only one side to every issue. Just ask MM.

Ninja (profile) says:

This watchlist thing is a complete shitshow. And I’d say an unconstitutional one. Then again, we are asking for respect towards laws and human rights from a govt that couldn’t care less for many years now. The current state of affairs isn’t responsibility from Trump alone. Neither Obama. Americans should be demanding this respect on the streets and the ballots.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Can you explain the basis of what you think is “unconstitutional”, or are you just throwing that around for fun?

To be clear, when you say “many years”, how many? 5-10-50-100-all of them?

Quick questions – you speak about Americans in the third person – are you a foreigner telling Americans what Americans should be demanding? Your name looks foreign. That would be strange, no? Do we tell you what you should be demanding? Isn’t that kind of a waste of breath? What is your relationship to America? Student of history? Political scientist? Constitutional scholar? One of those maybe?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The programs treat people as suspects who have done nothing to warrant this assumption. As US citizens, we have the freedom to travel and act unrestricted from existing laws and persecution based on our religion or genetic background. These programs are based on the opposite of this principle. The entire TSA is an unconstitutional mess that is purely security theater and is nothing more than a drain on the economy and a rights violation every time they put their hands on you.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Can you explain the basis of what you think is “unconstitutional”, or are you just throwing that around for fun?”

Lack of due process anyone?

“To be clear, when you say “many years”, how many? 5-10-50-100-all of them?”

Hmmm, this is kind of hard to pinpoint. I mean, you have stuff like the All Writs Act before 1800 but you also have a lot of post-WWII absurdities. If I had to elect one point where surveillance went haywire would be after WWII with the Cold War. Pretty nasty things were done for national security after that. And certainly 9/11 increased things tenfold.

“Do we tell you what you should be demanding?”

Don’t go down that slope, it’s slippery. You have a pretty nasty history of imposing what you want on other countries. My country has its own share of problems and the people here should be demanding a lot of things that they aren’t as well. But we are talking about the US. I’m not demanding anything but I think Americans should be up in arms (figuratively speaking or maybe not I don’t know) against the erosion of their civil liberties and general rights. If you are American and you think it’s all right then my condolences. But I’ve gone to the streets to protest for less than what’s happening there.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Just because they put citizens who were at an event, exercising their rights, on trial for bad acts they clearly had nothing to do with and told the jury beyond a reasonable doubt didn’t mean that much…

We are becoming a tiny country scared of our own shadow, begging someone to take away more of our rights to make sure we’re safe while they investigate everyone who ever tweeted something mean at Trump.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s a rather pessimistic (and chicken shit) view, don’t you think? We’re not becoming tiny. That sounds like a misplaced sexual performance problem, is that you problem? Lost your mojo? I can relate, you know, as I got older I slowed down a little (not much), maybe it’s just a temporary thing that a young lady could help you overcome. That would be my advice.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Pssst smartass…
I’m the gay one.

What I described happened, they attempted to undermine the legal system… THE DOJ TRIED TO UNDERMINE LEGAL PROCESS by claiming reasonable doubt wasn’t a big deal. They prosecuted people for the acts of others, despite no evidence showing they did any bad acts… just that they were there.
They tried to subpoena the names of thousands of people who merely visited a website, which served a few purposes but the main one was if you protest Trump we’ll arrest you & blame any bad acts that happen on you & take you to trial stacking up charges until you take a plea.

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