Who? How? Why?
A Boston Globe investigative report on Sunday broke the news of a secretive initiative that closely tracks ordinary US citizens traveling by air. The monitoring missions are part of “Quiet Skies,” a program of the Transportation Security Administration, and are conducted by federal air marshals aboard flights.
The reporting on Quiet Skies raises questions — and Congress should demand answers from the agency’s leaders.
What makes this security initiative particularly unusual is that it targets passengers who are not under investigation and are not on the government’s terror watch list. Air marshals are instructed to consider a broad spectrum of seemingly innocent behaviors as potential triggers for the surveillance. The criteria range from someone who has a “cold penetrating stare,” is “observing the boarding gate area from afar” or “boarded last,” to someone with “strong body odor,” “slept during most of the flight,” or “slept briefly.”
If a passenger is selected, then a team of air marshals is placed on that person’s next flight. About 35 passengers on domestic flights a day, on average, are followed and monitored by air marshals under Quiet Skies.
The measure may be a reasonable homeland security policy — the government’s terror watch lists can’t identify every threat in advance, and flagging and responding to suspicious behavior is a basic part of police work. Yet, in order to determine whether the program is reasonable, here’s key information that the TSA owes us:
Who ordered the implementation of Quiet Skies’ surveillance missions?
Have the behaviors listed in the TSA criteria really been shown to correlate to increased threat levels?
Is travel to and from specific countries also considered a red flag under this surveillance operation? If so, which ones?
What are the metrics of success? How does the agency measure the program’s effectiveness?
Have these secret tracking missions ever successfully prevented terrorism, drug or human trafficking, or any other crime?
How much does the initiative cost? Is this a smart allocation of taxpayer dollars?
If air marshals are collecting extensive amounts of information about targeted passengers, what happens to such data?
The surveillance operation on US citizens conducted under Quiet Skies provides a window into the often secretive and complex world of aviation security threat assessment. The TSA and other US security agencies have kept the flying public safe in the years since 9/11, but that doesn’t make the agency’s judgement infallible. Congress and the public deserve to learn more about a surveillance program conducted in their name.