"Quiet Skies" and Rough Waters Ahead

[Content Note: Privacy violations.]

It's been a minute since we've discussed the TSA's horrendous penchant for invading travelers' privacy in egregious ways.

But of course anything that was bad during the Obama administration is exponentially worse during the Trump administration.

So, at the Boston Globe, Jana Winter has an extensive piece on "Quiet Skies," a TSA program which tasks federal air marshals with "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."
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.

The internal bulletin describes the program's goal as thwarting threats to commercial aircraft "posed by unknown or partially known terrorists," and gives the agency broad discretion over which air travelers to focus on and how closely they are tracked.

But 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.

TSA officials, in a written statement to the Globe, broadly defended the agency's efforts to deter potential acts of terror. But the agency declined to discuss whether Quiet Skies has intercepted any threats, or even to confirm that the program exists.

Release of such information "would make passengers less safe," spokesman James Gregory said in the statement.
Ah, the old "we can't disclose results because safety" chestnut. Which we know means: There is no point to this program and it hasn't achieved a goddamned thing.

And anyone with a lick of sense understands that what makes passengers less safe is the TSA scrutinizing their movements and heaping undeserved suspicion on them, recording that information for future use in ways that can only be harmful to the "thousands of unsuspecting Americans" who have been assessed in ways that are profoundly troubling.
[The] targeted airport and inflight surveillance [is] 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.
It's easy to imagine how many disabled people have been unjustly targeted by this program, based on the metrics being used to identify "suspicious" behavior, as well as people who have reason to be nervous about flying — like trans people for whom security checks are deeply fraught and potentially traumatizing, and fat people for whom flying is an endless nightmare.

It's not at all clear that the program is even legal: As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told the Globe, "U.S. citizens don't lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet."

Or just walking through an airport.

Unfortunately, the current president has brazen contempt for the law. So it's even less clear how this program gets the axe.

One hopes that the federal air marshals speaking out about how it's preventing them from doing effective work that legitimately keeps passengers safe will be enough to persuade someone empowered to stop the program to do precisely that.

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