Federal air marshals have been secretly tracking dozens of American travelers each day who aren’t listed on government watch lists or suspected of a crime, The Boston Globe reported this weekend.
The Transportation Security Administration program, dubbed “Quiet Skies,” has existed since 2010 as an effort to mitigate the threat “posed by unknown or partially-known terrorists” after identifying people based on their travel history or other criteria. Air marshals then track such passengers and document their behavior at airports and in-flight, including how often they go to the bathroom, how many hours they sleep, if a traveler has “strong body odor” or “wide open, staring eyes.”
According to a bulletin issued by the agency in March and obtained by the Globe, the TSA tracks around 35 people every day. Which means thousands of Americans have been surveilled under the program since its inception.
Although some air marshals have criticized the program as expensive and ineffective, the TSA defended it in a statement to The Washington Post on Sunday, comparing the marshals to neighborhood law enforcement.
“We are no different than the cop on the corner who is placed there because there is an increased possibility that something might happen,” agency spokesman James Gregory told the Post. “When you’re in a tube at 30,000 feet ... it makes sense to put someone there.”
“The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns while taking the whole picture into account,” Gregory added. “If that person does all that stuff, and the airplane lands safely and they move on, the behavior will be noted, but they will not be approached or apprehended,”
Every American is automatically screened for the Quiet Skies program when he or she enters the country and, if included, can be tracked on domestic flights, the Globe reported. Air marshals tasked with following those in the program then write minute-by-minute accounts of travelers’ behavior and send that information to the TSA.
Travelers can remain participants in the program for up to 90 days, or three encounters, and are not notified that they are being monitored, per documents obtained by the Post.
It’s unclear if any arrests have been made because of the program.
Gregory said that no passengers were screened due to their race or religion, but civil rights groups have already criticized the initiative:
The federal government already has several large watch lists for air travelers, including a database of more than 1 million people listed as known or suspected terrorists. In May, The New York Times reported that the TSA had begun compiling a separate list for unruly passengers who the agency said may pose a threat to agency security screeners.