Jana Winter, The Boston Globe:
Federal air marshals have begun following ordinary US citizens not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behavior under a new domestic surveillance program that is drawing criticism from within the agency.
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.
…some air marshals, in interviews and internal communications shared with the Globe, say the program has them tasked with shadowing travelers who appear to pose no real threat — a businesswoman who happened to have traveled through a Mideast hot spot, in one case; a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, in another; a fellow federal law enforcement officer, in a third.
It is a time-consuming and costly assignment, they say, which saps their ability to do more vital law enforcement work.
Already under Quiet Skies, 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.
When someone on the Quiet Skies list is selected for surveillance, a team of air marshals is placed on the person’s next flight. The team receives a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth — about the target, according to agency documents.
The teams track citizens on domestic flights, to or from dozens of cities big and small — such as Boston and Harrisburg, Pa., Washington, D.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. — taking notes on whether travelers use a phone, go to the bathroom, chat with others, or change clothes, according to documents and people within the department.
Quiet Skies represents a major departure for TSA. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency has traditionally placed armed air marshals on routes it considered potentially higher risk, or on flights with a passenger on a terrorist watch list. Deploying air marshals to gather intelligence on civilians not on a terrorist watch list is a new assignment, one that some air marshals say goes beyond the mandate of the US Federal Air Marshal Service. Some also worry that such domestic surveillance might be illegal.
Since this initiative launched in March, dozens of air marshals have raised concerns about the Quiet Skies program with senior officials and colleagues, sought legal counsel, and expressed misgivings about the surveillance program, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Globe.
“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.
Agency documents show there are about 40 to 50 Quiet Skies passengers on domestic flights each day. On average, air marshals follow and surveil about 35 of them.
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.”
“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” said Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
“If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers’ constitutional rights. These concerns are all the more acute because of TSA’s track record of using unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor travelers who have done nothing wrong.”
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.
TSA has come under increased scrutiny from Congress since a 2017 Government Accountability Office report raised questions about its management of the Federal Air Marshal Service. Requested by Congress, the report noted that the agency, which spent $800 million in 2015, has “no information” on its effectiveness in deterring attacks.
The bulletin does not list the specific countries, but air marshals have been advised in several instances to follow passengers because of past travel to Turkey, according to people with direct knowledge of the program.
One air marshal described an assignment to conduct a Quiet Skies mission on a young executive from a major company.
“Her crime apparently was she flew to Turkey in the past,” the air marshal said, noting that many international companies have executives travel through Turkey.
“According to the government’s own [Department of Justice] standards there is no cause to be conducting these secret missions.”