Quiet Skies: The TSA’s Problematic And Potentially Illegal Surveillance Program

In a program simply referred to as “Quiet Skies,” U.S. citizens are being followed by federal air marshals. As the Boston Globe reports, this new “domestic surveillance program” is designed to give the organization insight into the behavior of those chosen, none of whom are on any watch lists or suspected of any crimes. Though the proposed goal of Quiet Skies is to prevent “threats to commercial aircraft posed by unknown or partially known terrorists,” it has already come under fire from members within the agency.

With Quiet Skies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is allowed to select the individuals it chooses to follow, as well as how to track them. When traveling, every American is “automatically screened for inclusion in Quiet Skies.” They are screened against terrorist watch lists and their background is reviewed to see if they have committed a crime. Additionally, people are also screened for any affiliations with possible terrorists.

When the agency selects a person for observation in Quiet Skies, undercover air marshals closely observe them while in the airport and during flight. The air marshals are given “a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth — about the target.” During their observation, the air marshals note “whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a ‘jump’ in their Adam’s apple or a ‘cold penetrating stare,’ among other behaviors.” The information is collected and then sent back to the TSA.

Since its inception in March, thousands of American travelers have been chosen for observation. On average, there is often about 50 passengers selected for observation on each Domestic flight. Air marshals surveil about 30 of them.

But many air marshals have raised concerns over the program; some feel it is too time-consuming, while others feel uneasy.

“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,” wrote one air marshal. Another raised concerns over the program after having to observe a Southwest Airlines flight attendant while she was working.

As concerns about Quiet Skies arise within the agency, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have also spoken out.

“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Hugh Handeyside. He added that Americans’ constitutional rights could be violated if the TSA is found using so-called “odd behavior” as a cover to single out individuals based on their race or religion.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says that Quiet Skies could lead to a massive legal battle.

“If this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power. But if it’s U.S. citizens — U.S. citizens don’t lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet,” Turley said.