The Boston Globe revealed that federal air marshals are watching Americans who are not under formal investigation, noting apparently suspicious behaviors such as excessive sweating, changing clothes and going to the bathroom frequently.
The article about the “Quiet Skies” program raised immediate concerns about creepy and unnecessary surveillance.
John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, told the Globe that “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.”
In fact, the program may not be as creepy or as wasteful as the fallout suggests. But Congress should step in now and make sure, bringing the public along as it does.
Quiet Skies began as an effort at the Transportation Security Administration to better allocate air marshals’ time. According to a TSA spokesman, air marshals used to be assigned to first-class seats on large airliners crossing the country, under the logic that big, fuel-laden planes would be the most attractive targets for terrorists, and the marshals could serve as the last line of defense against terrorists attempting to take the cockpit.
But that meant air marshals were spreading themselves thin across lots of flights on which there was no inkling of a threat. The TSA decided to redirect air marshals to flights where officials had reason to believe someone suspicious was on board.
The TSA adds passengers to the Quiet Skies list for scrutiny after it identifies alarming patterns of international travel and other suspicious signs.
According to agency documents, air marshals then watch those passengers for “up to 90 days or three encounters.” Among other things, the marshals employ behavior detection techniques similar to those that TSA agents use to evaluate all passengers at security checkpoints, such as watching for signs of excessive nervousness.
Since airliners are spaces where no one expects privacy, it is unlikely the marshals’ scrutiny constitutes an illegal search. If the 90 days pass without incident, the scrutinized passengers are removed from the list and their files are closed and later purged, the TSA spokesman said.
The TSA’s drive to focus resources on potential threats makes sense. It has led to programs such as TSA PreCheck, which reduces burdens on nondangerous airline passengers every day. Quiet Skies appears to be a less visible manifestation of the same logic.
The TSA could no doubt adjust Quiet Skies. It can put air marshals on smaller planes traveling off-the-beaten-path routes. The agency could surely combine passenger-threat information with an assessment of whether an aircraft is a likely terrorist target to better deploy air marshals.
Moreover, now that Quiet Skies has been revealed and concerns are mounting, Congress should hold hearings on the program.