Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have received extensive briefings about the Transportation Security Administration’s previously secretive Quiet Skies program since its inception in 2010, an agency spokesman told The Epoch Times. TSA officials regularly brief multiple congressional committees on Quiet Skies and similar aviation security initiatives, the spokesman added. Officials are set to brief lawmakers again on Aug. 1.
The inner workings of Quiet Skies were a closely held secret until July 28, when The Boston Globe published a feature on the program, detailing how air marshals closely observe travelers who might potentially pose a risk to aviation.
Michael Bilello, the TSA’s assistant administrator of public affairs, disputes the Globe’s claim that the program targets “ordinary Americans.” Targets for observation are instead selected based on travel patterns involving destinations with high levels of terrorist and extremist activity, Bilello said.
Once a traveler is flagged based on his or her travel patterns, the agency researches the subject’s background and uses hundreds of rules-based intelligence qualifications to determine whether the person poses a threat.
Once in the program, each subject is shielded from potential rights violations via robust oversight by legal, privacy, and civil liberties experts, according to Bilello. Persons who don’t exhibit any suspicious activity are dropped from the program, he added.
“In the world of law enforcement, this program’s core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence,” TSA said in a statement. “The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security.”
Air marshals observing Quiet Skies travelers are tasked with identifying red flags in a person’s behavior or appearance. The marshals collect data on subjects who choose to board the airplane last, make frequent trips to the bathroom, and adjust their appearance by shaving or changing clothes. The 9/11 hijackers shaved their beards at the airports, and the ISIS terrorist group instructs its agents to shave to blend in.
Marshals also record if the person exhibited excessive fidgeting, sweating, or trembling, or had a “cold penetrating stare,” among other factors. The marshals collect the data in real time and send it to the TSA as they follow a subject on a trip.
The release of the secret checklists to the public will not disrupt the program’s operation since America’s adversaries are well aware of what air marshals look for and teach their operatives to avoid behaviors that are seen as red flags.
Because of the Globe’s critical focus on Quiet Skies, lawmakers and civil liberties groups expressed concern about the program.
Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the TSA with a list of questions about the program.
“In particular, I am troubled by reports that the TSA is tracking U.S. citizens who are not suspected of any crime and then monitoring seemingly innocuous behavior, such as whether a person slept on their plane, used the bathroom, or obtained a rental car,” Markey wrote.
“The Quiet Skies program is the very definition of ‘Big Brother,’ and innocent Americans should not be subject to this kind of violation of their rights.
”This program raises serious privacy concerns, and depending on what criteria are being used for selecting individuals to surveil, including ethnicity, nationality, race, or religion, the program may be unconstitutional.”
Bilello told Fox News on July 30 that while seeming innocuous, the behaviors on the checklists closely match the behaviors exhibited by people who have carried out attacks on airports and airplanes.
The American Civil Liberties Union said on July 30 that it will file a Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about the program. The union faulted the program for shadowing innocent Americans who are not under investigation.
“The red flags here are plentiful,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney for ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement. “Federal law enforcement shouldn’t be tracking and monitoring travelers and then logging detailed information about them without any basis to believe that they’ve done anything wrong.”
Air marshals are trained to spot suspicious behavior, regardless of whether the person is part of Quiet Skies. The TSA employs 2,000 to 3,000 air marshals. Documents reviewed by the Globe show that some 40 to 50 Quiet Skies targets travel on domestic flights on a given day. Of those, 35 subjects are observed by marshals.
“With routine reviews and active management via legal, privacy, and civil rights and liberties offices, the program is a practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet,” the agency said in a statement.
Jim Hanson, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, defended Quiet Skies in an interview with “Fox and Friends” on July 31.
“It’s modeled on an Israeli program that is the most successful in the world at preventing hijacking and terrorism,” Hanson said. “It’s not an intrusion. It’s simply being observant of people to see if they’re doing things that could trigger an alert.”