TSA’s Quiet Skies — is the agency secretly watching you?

Sometimes the government gets really creepy. An air marshall program, TSA’s Quiet Skies, aimed at travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” has been uncovered by reporters at the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

This surveillance program, called “Quiet Skies,” has air marshalls watching ordinary passengers not on any terrorist watch list or suspected of any wrongdoing. According to a bulletin issued internally, Quiet Skies looks for unknown threats “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists.” The agency has no real constraints on which passengers they decide to follow, nor on how closely they are tracked. Plus, I have to believe these surveillance notes are secretly filed away somewhere to be utilized in who knows what ways by TSA agents.

The recent IG report on the Federal Air Marshals’ ground-based activities did not include TSA’s Quiet Skies program, making its existence even more mysterious.

According to the Boston Globe, “…thousands of unsuspecting Americans have been subjected to targeted airport and inflight surveillance, carried out by small teams of armed, undercover air marshals, government documents show. The teams document whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a “jump” in their Adam’s apple or a “cold penetrating stare,” among other behaviors, according to the records. Air marshals note these observations — minute-by-minute — in two separate reports and send this information back to the TSA.”

The Boston Globe article goes on:

The program relies on 15 rules to screen passengers, according to a May agency bulletin, and the criteria appear broad: “rules may target” people whose travel patterns or behaviors match those of known or suspected terrorists, or people “possibly affiliated” with someone on a watch list.

The Washington Post story following up on the Boston Globe scoop notes:

…the TSA has since 2010 tasked marshals to identify passengers who raise flags because of travel histories or other factors and conduct secret observations of their actions — including behavior as common as sweating heavily or using the restroom repeatedly — as they fly between U.S. destinations.

Click here to subscribeEnough already. This is a clear overreach by TSA with surveillance of Americans with no probable cause and no connection to any illegal activity. It is one thing to go back over a person’s activities with a search warrant, but a far different issue when government agents are randomly watching American citizens because they might be doing something illegal or might be unwittingly associating with someone who might be randomly surveilled.

These kinds of actions are expected from East Germany’s old Stasi or the Russian KGB. But, they are flat-out un-American and should be stopped right now. We already have plenty of excellent intelligence being provided that has successfully kept terrorism plots at bay in our country. We do not want to have a band of TSA Dudley Do-Rights wandering around airports randomly writing reports up about innocent American citizens.

The Washington Post article quoting TSA spokesman James O. Gregory continues,

… during in-flight observation of people who are tagged as Quiet Skies passengers, marshals use an agency checklist to record passenger behavior: Did he or she sleep during the flight? Did he or she use a cellphone? Look around erratically?

“The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns while taking the whole picture into account,” Gregory said, adding “an additional line of defense to aviation security.”

“If that person does all that stuff, and the airplane lands safely and they move on, the behavior will be noted, but they will not be approached or apprehended,” Gregory said.

That’s very comforting. If I am surveilled with no probable cause and then I do nothing wrong, I will not be apprehended. But, if I go to the bathroom and shave (perhaps to change my appearance), or look into a shop window (perhaps to scan the area behind me for surveillance), or stop to look at the boarding gate (perhaps to watch the boarding processes), or put on sunglasses, pull my hair back into a ponytail, or put on makeup (to make identification more difficult), all that will be “noted.”

At least, I am not apprehended. But, now I wonder how many secret Quiet Skies files the TSA has tucked away somewhere. How does TSA’s random surveillance affect my Terrorist Watchlist standing? Am I in one of their files? Are you?