Federal air marshals have started to watch and gather information on ordinary U.S. citizens who are not on any terrorist watch list, a new investigation finds.
The program, called “Quiet Skies,” is specifically designed for federal air marshals to collect “extensive information” on U.S. travelers who are not being investigated for any crime or terrorist screening, according to a July 28 report by The Boston Globe. Marshals report their observation back to the Transportation Security Administration.
The Boston Globe reviewed internal bulletins and government documents in its investigation, claiming the program has received criticism even from those inside the agency.
The TSA bulletin, according to the Globe, says the aim of this program is to reduce threats to commercial aircrafts “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists.”
However, air marshals told the newspaper that they have often been asked to follow travelers who “appear to pose no real threat.”
According to agents who spoke with the Globe, the operation is costly and often distracts them from other “vital law enforcement work.”
The TSA confirmed the program’s existence on Monday to the New York Post — but protested its characterization as a “secret” initiative.
“This is not a secret program or list,” Michael Bilello, TSA assistant administrator for public affairs, told the Post. “The sole purpose of this program officially is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during their air travel.”
Bilello added that many other factors are considered before placing a person under such surveillance, though he did not specify these factors.
Air marshals did tell the Globe that the travelers they shadowed varied in background, ranging from a businesswoman, to a flight attendant, to a federal law enforcement officer. They reportedly document behaviors including boarding last, sleeping during the flight, “white knuckling” bags, or having “an Adam’s apple jump.”
In a written statement to the Globe, TSA officials defended the program and refused to say whether it has resulted in any thwarted attacks, claiming that such revelations would “would make passengers less safe.”
U.S. citizens entering the country automatically become eligible for screening as part of the program.
The report further claims that while the bulletin doesn’t list specific countries, some people are more likely to be screened based on their past travels, especially those who traveled to Turkey.
Bilello told the New York Post that this program has played a role “in keeping another 9/11 from happening.”
[Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]