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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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 7:37am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 11:17am

      Re: Normal isn't so normal anymore

      Solution is simple - just increase the H1B quota.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 12:24am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        The Wanderer (profile), 1 Aug 2018 @ 9:28am

        Re: Re: Normal isn't so normal anymore

        If my math is right, that works out to one in a hundred billion.

        While the numbers of law-enforcement officers worldwide who will ever personally encounter a terrorist are certainly low, I don't think they're quite that low.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:09am

    God help you if you accidentally give one of them the slip..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 10:30am

      Re:

      I have pretty good situational awareness, know some basic fieldcraft and routinely evade people who seem to be following me. I'd be amazed if I'm not on multiple watch lists.

      I've been on a BATF watch list since I was 18.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        football, 1 Aug 2018 @ 7:09am

        Re: Re:

        Lucky for you, if you are on the list they probably won't follow you around. It seems they think people who aren't on any watch list are more suspicious than people who are.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:09am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:11am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:17am

      'You are so going on MORE lists!'

      I'd say you were so going on the list(s) for that, but given the current insanity odds are good that you and more than a few others here are already on one or more lists, because 'why not, it's not like it's a problem for us to add names?' if nothing else.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 12:32am

      Re:

      Its becoming much more convenient to tunnel anymore when I go on vacation.. that way I avoid all those unpleasantries at airports and flight delays!?! ?!(wtf)!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:23am

    So basically the TSA joined Nextdoor.com?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:31am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:33am

    I would like to see one article about something good coming out of the TSA.

    While we are at it I also want fairy powder so I can fly myself to the Neverland.

    I suspect I'll get the second one before the first one materializes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:51am

      Flying to Neverland

      Fairy powder, mass produced would solve the TSA problem by killing the airline industry.

      Not that the airline industry is doing all that well in the absence of competition.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 12:42pm

        Re: Flying to Neverland

        Giving them the magic slipper would likely get you on all sorts of watchlists -- and the FAA would get involved if fairy powder was ever used.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 10:08am

      Re:

      I would like to see one article about something good coming out of the TSA.

      If you're willing to accept unintentional comedy as "good", you'll find lots.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 12:38am

      Re:

      Why would you want 'fairy powder'??

      Oh but haven't they stopped groping everyone in plain view and now take them behind closed doors?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:54am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 10:12am

      Re: Is this an example of function creep?

      The TSA is supposed to protect against terrorists, not even "crime" in general. They're so incredibly rare in the US that there was never any significant chance of catching one. The agency was set up for function creep.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Thad, 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:55am

    out_of_the_blue's heroes, ladies and gentlemen!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 9:58am

    Loss of respect

    And then these government agencies wonder why the public doesn't respect them- not just for the waste of money and the waste of resources, but that they're targeting regular people.

    I just wish there was more outcry, like maybe protesting airports and the airlines, until something is changed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 12:08pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 12:43am

      Re: Loss of respect

      This is what would change. LE would start shooting protesters outside airports.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 10:37am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 11:22am

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

      What?
      Only one comment?
      AC's problem is not a lack of comments but a lack of substance. Posts the same comment whining about about how TD does not do what AC wants, everyone is a pirate and AC's shit dont't stink.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 5:49pm

      Re:

      Photographing the police is legal, blue boy. How's that for a topic?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dan (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 11:02am

    Illegal? Unconstitutional?

    Grant that the program is a colossal waste of money (everything else TSA does is, so this isn't hard to believe), but in what way is it, even possibly, unconstitutional?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 11:18am

      Re: Illegal? Unconstitutional?

      We used to have a thing called the "fourth amendment".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Dan (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 11:36am

        Re: Re: Illegal? Unconstitutional?

        Yeah, I'm kind of familiar with the Fourth Amendment. How do you see it applying here? Because arguing that watching what you do in public violates it is novel, to say the least.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 12:39pm

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 2:24pm

            Re: Fourth Amendment violations

            Where the government is making private companies help it (like by requiring airlines to check ID or give unpaid seats to air marshals), we find the rare third amendment concern as well.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 3:38pm

      Re: Illegal? Unconstitutional?

      If people are being added to the list based on race/religion or proxies for the same, that can violate the 14th Amendment.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Clippy, 31 Jul 2018 @ 12:07pm

    Let's all get on the list

    It would be entertaining to see what happens if enough "normal" passengers could be convinced to start carrying notebooks or even clipboards (gasp!) and spend their waiting time jotting down "notes" while wandering around the airport. Nothing illegal about that (yet).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    scotts13 (profile), 31 Jul 2018 @ 12:46pm

    If you grew up in the 50's, as I did, you heard all about programs like this - executed by the KGB in the USSR. How lucky we are to live here, where... freedom lasted a little longer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Here comes the end of US tech dominance, 31 Jul 2018 @ 1:57pm

    THE TRUTH IS

    they are following rich foreigners around hoping they drop money .....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2018 @ 2:14pm

    causes unrelated problems

    This explains some of the bumps from flights and "overbooking" that airlines like to claim. Next time I'm bumped, I'm going to complain loudly about air marshalls taking my seat!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 12:56am

      Re: causes unrelated problems

      Do you know if Air Marshals are even trained NOT to shoot holes through a plane's fusalage at 37,000 feet causing rapid depressurization and mass casualties while attempting to apprehend some suspicious looking long hair rebel?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 31 Jul 2018 @ 5:45pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 1:02am

      Re: Security Theater for Frogs

      Zero terrorists? Well that program must be working then. I don't know of one terrorist that likes to be groped by an infidel foreign government agent!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2018 @ 11:11am

      Re: Security Theater for Frogs

      Exactly. From the linked document: "TSA currently sees 40-50 Quiet Skies selectees... each day."

      Every.
      Single.
      Day.

      How many airplanes have been blown out of the sky by passengers? That's below drug-dog-border-checkpoint levels of risk.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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