Under a secretive program operated by the Transportation Security Administration, thousands of Americans not suspected of any crime or on any terrorist watchlist have been surveilled in airports and on flights by undercover federal air marshals for exhibiting what the agency deems suspicious behavior, according to a new report from the Boston Globe.
On Sunday, the TSA commented on the program known as “Quiet Skies,” which, according to the Washington Post, has operated since 2010. The TSA argued that its agents were operating as any law enforcement agency might act in dealing with suspicious behavior. But critics, including some federal air marshals involved in the program, have argued that the Quiet Skies program violates the privacy rights of U.S. citizens and prevents the marshals from being able to more effectively allocate time and resources to dealing with real threats.
According to the Globe, about 35 people are monitored every day after being put on the Quiet Skies list. Those people, according to internal documents the Globe found, are often first flagged because of past travel to certain countries or because of contact with people who are actually on a terrorism watchlist—every American who enters the country is screened for this step, according to the Globe. The passengers are then monitored using a checklist of suspicious or abnormal behavior, including things like having a “cold penetrating stare,” boarding last, changing clothes in the bathroom, fidgeting or sweating excessively, having a strong body odor, and appearing different than they did on their IDs.
If the person is determined to qualify for surveillance, a team of air marshals will be placed on the passenger’s flight, according to the Globe. The team takes notes on whether the passenger uses a phone, goes to the bathroom, or talks to others on the flight. The passengers can remain on the Quiet Skies list for up to 90 days.
Federal air marshals have commonly surveilled the subjects of FBI terrorism investigations, but in the Quiet Skies program, they do not report to the FBI or any other law enforcement agency outside the TSA.
Some TSA agents told the Globe that they monitored people who, the agents believed, posed no real danger, including a Southwest Airlines flight attendant and a fellow federal law enforcement officer.
A spokesman for the agency told the Post that the program did not single passengers out based on their race or religion. The spokesman also said that agents did not listen to passengers’ calls or follow them around the airports, meaning it is not a true surveillance program.