Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Paper Cuts: Thunderbolt of Journalism Reveals TSA “Quiet Skies” Surveillance Program

(Illustration by POGO)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which stations armed plainclothes officers—known as federal air marshals—on U.S.-carrier flights to protect passengers in the event of an attempted hijacking has itself been hijacked by a resource-intensive assignment. The Boston Globe last weekend reported that sky police “teams” have been officially tasked with implementing the agency’s previously undisclosed 2010 “Quiet Skies Program.” On a typical day, under the newly revealed program, air marshals are tasked with “Special Mission Coverage” to surreptitiously surveil and report the observed behavior of around “40-50” targeted travelers deemed “higher risk.”

The travelers are drawn from the daily pool of passengers who happen to be returning to or visiting the United States “from foreign locations.” A TSA “need to know” bulletin leaked to the Globe describes examples of possible “Quiet Skies Rules” criteria.

Reasons to possibly target individuals include if a traveler’s “reservation information includes email addresses or phone numbers associated with watch listed terrorism suspects” or if a traveler “spent a certain amount of time in one or more specific countries.” A 2016 Government Accountability Office report evaluating the Federal Air Marshal Service’s risk strategy notes that a Special Mission Coverage assignment is one where air marshals are deployed on flights “that have a known or suspected terrorist on board.” However, the leaked bulletin notes the targeted citizens or legal visitors in the Quiet Skies program “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB).”

Once these unsuspecting American citizens or legal visitors make the cut as “Quiet Skies Selectees” they remain in that status “for up to 90 days or 3 encounters, whichever comes first.”

The Globe reported that domestic traveler selectees are monitored in the airport, the boarding area, and during their entire flights from or to airports as large as Houston, Detroit, New York, and Miami or as small as Myrtle Beach, SC, and Harrisburg, PA.

Agents use an internal TSA checklist (below) to track such telltale terrorist characteristics as being “abnormally aware of their surroundings” evidenced by “reversing or changing directions and/or stopping while in transit through the airport” or by “using the reflection in storefront windows to identify surveillance.”

The Globe reports that air marshals made note that certain monitored passengers had characteristics such as “sweaty palms,” “strong body odor,” or a “cold penetrating stare.”

Information on whether the surveilled subjects used the lavatory or slept during the flight, and if so, for how long, is logged into an officer’s air activity report. The closely observed individuals are watched and their activity logged on a checklist for such unusual travel activity as carrying a computer or conversing with a fellow passenger.

Some air marshals within the TSA think the program is misguided. “The air marshal's job is to protect the cockpit and the pilots,” air marshal and whistleblowerRobert MacLean toldCBS Evening News after the story broke, “Let somebody else do the intelligence and criminal investigative work." (The Project On Government Oversight previously supported MacLean when his retaliation case went to the Supreme Court; the Court ruled in his favor.)

Although the leaked bulletin states the TSA’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis employs 17 “rules to screen passengers,” what qualifies the profiled passengers for the taxpayer-funded special attention to their “exhibited behavioral indicators” is not public.

In a press statement to CBS Evening News, the TSA said:

The primary purpose of this program is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel. Contrary to the article 'Welcome to the Quiet Skies' published by The Boston Globe, the program doesn't take into account race and religion, and is not intended to surveil ordinary Americans. In the world of law enforcement, this program's core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence. The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, the program effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security. With routine reviews and active management via legal, privacy and civil rights and liberties offices, the program is a practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet.

TSA’s public assurances don’t appear to be enough for some in Congress, who want to learn more. Citing the Globe’s story and the leaked documents, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday sent a letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske requesting information to “ensure TSA’s programs and policies provide appropriate privacy and due process protections to travelers, are applied without discrimination, are grounded in actionable intelligence, and exist within TSA’s legal authorities.