The federal government has been surveilling passengers for the past eight years under a program known as “Quiet Skies,” according to a new report.
The program, which began during the administration of former President Barack Obama, was first revealed Sunday by The Boston Globe.
The Globe reported that unlike other programs that target criminals or suspected terrorists, “Quiet Skies” focuses on travelers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” according to a Transportation Security Administration bulletin that was issued in March.
TSA spokesman James Gregory defended the program in an interview with The Washington Post.
“We are no different than the cop on the corner who is placed there because there is an increased possibility that something might happen,” Gregory said. “When you’re in a tube at 30,000 feet . . . it makes sense to put someone there.”
Gregory said the program did not make decisions based on race or religion.
“The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns while taking the whole picture into account,” Gregory said, calling it “an additional line of defense to aviation security.”
The report said thousands of Americans have been watched by armed, undercover agents who record “whether passengers fidget, use a computer, have a ‘jump’ in their Adam’s apple or a ‘cold penetrating stare,” according to TSA records.
The basis for being watched involved a traveler’s travel history and behavior, The Globe reported.
“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,” Gregory said.
Once a traveler makes the list to be shadowed, a team of armed air marshals follows him or her on the individual’s next flight.
The TSA said it examines travel patterns “through a system of checks and balances,” according to Fox News.
The TSA did not reveal if there have been any arrests due to the program, which several commentators said raises civil liberties issues.
“If this was about foreign citizens, the government would have considerable power,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “But if it’s U.S. citizens — U.S. citizens don’t lose their rights simply because they are in an airplane at 30,000 feet. There may be indeed constitutional issues here depending on how restrictive or intrusive these measures are.”
One commentator said the program is troubling.
“These revelations raise profound concerns about whether TSA is conducting pervasive surveillance of travelers without any suspicion of actual wrongdoing,” said Hugh Handeyside, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If TSA is using proxies for race or religion to single out travelers for surveillance, that could violate the travelers’ constitutional rights. These concerns are all the more acute because of TSA’s track record of using unreliable and unscientific techniques to screen and monitor travelers who have done nothing wrong,” he said.
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