If you're a law abiding US citizen, a team of armed undercover US Air Marshals could be following you on your next flight, taking minute-by-minute notes whether or not you engage in such threatening behavior as sleeping on the plane, using a phone, going to the bathroom or talking to other passengers.
The Boston Globe has revealed a new federal program that profiles and surveils ordinary US citizen travelers who otherwise have no legitimate reason for being profiled. The secret program, called "Quiet Skies", was set up to monitor US citizens with no prior record and who don't result in red flags being raised at the airport. The people surveiled and followed in this program are, according to a TSA memo cited by the Globe article, "not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base".
In essence, the program gives the TSA the option to monitor and track whoever it likes for any reason whatsoever, effectively granting TSA agents a green light to violate anyone's personal privacy even as the legal and constitutional implications of such profiling remain unknown. And, understandably, internal pushback against the relatively new program has emerged as some Federal Air Marshals have noted that it is a drain on resources and is way too time consuming and costly.
Further, concerns have been raised by legal experts, like Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, who said that "if this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power. But if it’s US citizens — US citizens don’t lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet."
Predictably, the TSA defended the program to the Boston Globe when asked and declined to note for the article whether or not the program has been successful in stopping any threats. In fact, it wouldn’t even confirm that the program existed. But documents provided to the Boston Globe by FSA sources confirm that this highly controversial program does, in fact, exist.
So if you're not on any terrorist watch list and you are not under investigation by the Federal Government, what exactly do armed Air Marshals look for when a "small team of them" watches you as you fly or home to visit relatives for the holidays?
Amazingly, the red flag "triggers" for in depth surveillance involve behaviors that essentially all passengers are susceptible to, such as:
- whether or not passengers fidget
- whether or not they are using a computer on the flight
- whether or not they stare off into space
- face touching
- exaggerated emotions
- whether or not a subject has lost or gained weight from the information provided to authorities
- whether or not the subject has facial hair, tattoos, piercings,
- whether not they slept during the flight
- whether not they use the bathroom on the flight
- how they were picked up when they arrive.
The full "behavior checklist", uploaded on the Boston Globe website, is both astonishing and frightening.
A casual skim of the above "threats" narrows down the list of potential suspects to - well, everybody who flies or has ever flown in an airplane.
And yes, Air Marshal have been instructed to focus especially on people who have "gained weight", have a beard, checked their baggage, and either talk on the phone or have a computer: almost as if the government has granted explicit permission for the FSA to profile just about anyone, for any reason whatsoever.
The article did not reveal how people are initially chosen for the screening, and the TSA naturally refused to share the information. However, what we do know is that once one has made the list and 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.
Despite its relative recency, the program is already operational across virtually all major airports.
And just like Edward Snowden and the NSA, the Globe points out that pushback against this kind of indescriminate profiling is rising as "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."
Sensing an avalanche of legal fees, experts that specialize in civil liberties and citizens' rights believe that the program may not be lawful:
Experts on civil liberties called the Quiet Skies program worrisome and potentially illegal.
“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.”
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said Quiet Skies touches on several sensitive legal issues and appears to fall into a gray area of privacy law.
The biggest irony, as several Air Marshals observed, is that that potentially illegal program which infringes on the privacy and constitutional rights of US citizens, is also being paid for by those very same US citizens. Just like with the NSA.
Even the president of the Air Marshal Association has spoken out against the program:
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. The US Federal Air Marshal Service, which is part of TSA and falls under the Department of Homeland Security, has a mandate to protect airline passengers and crew against the risk of criminal and terrorist violence.
John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, said in a statement: “The Air Marshal Association believes that missions based on recognized intelligence, or in support of ongoing federal investigations, is the proper criteria for flight scheduling. Currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable.
“The American public would be better served if these [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed.”
Finally, for those unlucky enough to have "gained weight" since their last observations - or heaven forbid grew a goatee - and triggered the TSA's red flag, once selected for the list they are surveilled for up to 90 days or for their next three encounters, whatever comes first.
While the long running practice of Air Marshals Performing surveillance on those who are the focus of government investigations makes sense – this clear abuse of power and disregard for the rights of US citizens is so egregious that even those tasked with enforcing it can’t get behind it.