TSA Breaks Silence, Defends Secretive Domestic Surveillance Program

The TSA has broken its silence to defend its alarming domestic surveillance program called "Quiet Skies" which allows the agency to use teams of armed Air Marshals to follow, track and surveil virtually anyone. TSA administrator David Pekoske told CBS news in a recent interview that the program "...makes an awful lot of sense, to be able to look at some risks that we think exist on certain flights and put air marshals on those flights."

We were one of the first to report on the "Quiet Skies" program at the end of July after the Boston Globe uncovered it in a lengthy and revealing expose. The secret program 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 surveilled by this program are, according to a TSA memo cited by the Globe's original article, "not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base", setting of numerous privacy red flags.

Now, two weeks after the Globe's report, the TSA is finally speaking out about the program to CBS News:

"Our job overall as an agency, and the air marshals in particular, in flight, are working to make sure that we mitigate any risks that could occur in aircraft at 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 feet," Pekoske told CBS News in his first TV interview since the "Quiet Skies" program was disclosed to the public. "If an agency responsible for security has some information that might indicate that there may be -- emphasis on may be -- more risk with a particular passenger, providing some mitigation or some risk management on the flight is a very important and very reassuring thing to me."

In a slippery slope that could lead the TSA to just about any air traveler, Pekoske said that "different passengers present different levels of risk" and that the TSA wanted to be able to "have a presence" with passengers who fall below the threshold that would prevent them from flying:

"Throughout the entire system … different passengers present different levels of risk," Pekoske said. "Passengers have a right to fly and if we ever thought the risk reached the point where the passenger shouldn't fly, then we have the authority to deny flight for that particular passenger."

"But as you can appreciate, there are some passengers that fall below that threshold but still create a level of concern that we need -- we felt we needed to have a presence on the flights that they were flying on," he said.

According to the TSA, travelers who may present a risk should be allowed to fly regardless. These comments, of course, all come after the TSA wouldn’t definitively confirm that the program existed (or if it has resulted in any arrests or thwarted crimes) back in late July. The Boston Globe had to use documents like this one provided to it to verify the existence of the program.

Since the Globe's report, the program has also seen backlash from members of congress like Senator Ed Markey, who has called it "the very definition of 'Big Brother'" and who also stated that "innocent Americans should not be subject to this kind of violations of their rights". Markey outlined other concerns, including what criteria was being used to select individuals for surveillance, in a letter he penned to the TSA, according to the CBS news report.

Further, as we reported in our original piece, 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."

What exactly do armed Air Marshals look for when a "small team of them" watches you as you fly home to visit relatives or 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.

Just like Edward Snowden and the NSA, the Globe pointed out that pushback against this kind of indiscriminate 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."

The biggest irony, as several Air Marshals observed, is that the 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:

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.”

However, the objections of the Air Marshals being utilized by the TSA for such surveillance doesn't seem to matter much to Pekoske, who continues to back the party line given to CBS by the TSA last month when it stated that the program was simply to "ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel", individual privacy rights be damned.