“Quiet Skies”? Boston Globe Exposé Reveals TSA Is Secretly Surveilling Thousands of U.S. Travelers

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A Boston Globe investigation has revealed the existence of a domestic surveillance program run by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, which has been shadowing U.S. citizens on planes and in airports since 2012. Under the program, called “Quiet Skies,” federal air marshals collect information about U.S. travelers, including common behavior like using the bathroom repeatedly, sleeping on flights or sweating heavily. In the wake of the Globe investigation, TSA officials have bowed to pressure from Congress and plan to meet with the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees. We speak with Jana Winter, the Boston Globe Spotlight fellow who broke the story. Her investigation is headlined “Welcome to the Quiet Skies.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Think back to the last time you took a flight. While you were in the airport, did you observe the boarding gate from afar? Did you touch your face or perspire? Did you fidget in the chair of the terminal waiting room? If you exhibited any of these behaviors, armed federal air marshals may have followed you and collected extensive information about your movements.

A Boston Globe investigation has revealed the existence of a domestic surveillance program run by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, which has been shadowing U.S. citizens on planes and in airports since 2012. Under the program, called “Quiet Skies,” federal air marshals collect information about U.S. travelers, including common behavior like using the bathroom repeatedly, sleeping on a flight or sweating heavily. This is a video clip from The Boston Globe about the program.

NARRATOR: While air marshals typically have assisted the FBI and surveilled people on a terrorist watchlist, “Quiet Skies” casts a wider net. Sources told the Globe that surveillance targets have included flight attendants on duty, a young business executive, and, in at least one case, another federal law enforcement officer. Anyone who flies into the U.S. is prescreened for the program. Documents show about 30 people on domestic flights are monitored each day. Thousands have been surveilled.

AMY GOODMAN: In the wake of The Boston Globe investigation, TSA officials have bowed to pressure from Congress and plan to meet with the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees.

For more, we go to Boston to be joined by Jana Winter, the Boston Globe Spotlight fellow who broke the story. Her investigation is headlined “Welcome to the Quiet Skies.”

So, Jana, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what this “Quiet Skies” program is.

JANA WINTER: Well, thanks for having me. And here’s what we know. We know that since March, thousands of ordinary Americans, who are not under any investigation or on any watchlist, have been followed by teams of armed air marshals from the moment they get to the airport, through the flight and up until they record the license plate number of the vehicle that picks them up in their arrival city. And they write down minute-by-minute details of everything they do—if they go to the bathroom, if they change clothes, if they, as you said, touch their face, and anyone they interact with, and details about what kind of phone they have. Were they on the phone? Were they having a conversation? Were they texting? What were they reading? Are you on a computer? What type of computer? And also, is that an iPhone? What color is the case? It’s a huge amount of information, and there are still a lot of questions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jana, what about the reason for this? You say it really started in March. What’s the purpose of the program and the reason that it was instituted?

JANA WINTER: TSA has not really defended it much, frankly, other than to say that it is part of their efforts to screen passengers who may be of higher risk. The documents that we’ve obtained say the idea is to mitigate the threat of attacks to aircraft by known or, quote, “partially known” terrorists. And that’s pretty much all we know. They’ve been able to provide zero information about why they’re doing this, if they’ve found any threats by doing this or really any other details to justify this program.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a statement from the Air Marshal Association, which you quote in your article. The organization’s president, John Casaretti, said, “The Air Marshal Association believes that missions based on recognized intelligence, or in support of ongoing [federal] investigations, is the proper criteria for flight scheduling. Currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable. The American public would be better served if these [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed.” That’s the Air Marshal Association, Jana Winter. They are opposed to this. I mean, when we’re walking through the airport, something like, what, 35 to 50 people are soon being tracked by air marshals and actually followed onto planes? What happens if the plane is fully booked? Do the air marshals knock people off out of their seats to sit next to their suspect?

JANA WINTER: Oh, absolutely. Once I found out the details of this, I of course thought, “Oh, wow! Is this why we get bumped from planes all the time, even if we’ve booked well in advance?” And the answer to that is not a hundred percent, I certainly wouldn’t say, but, yes, they bump people from flights every single day to sit near the person who they are targeting, who in this case is someone who has no reason to be followed.

And it’s pretty remarkable, since you read John Casaretti’s quote, that air marshals who are actually assigned to carry out these tasks have been so concerned that—I’ve talked to more than a dozen, and that’s super rare. And they believe that they are diverting their attention from actual, real threats by people who have a history of something that could lead to something dangerous. And they’re worried that they’re being ordered to carry out a program that may not be legal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there’s been a bipartisan criticism in Congress about this program and questions now being raised where TSA is going to have to defend the program. Could you talk about the congressional reaction?

JANA WINTER: Right. As you’ve noticed, I mean, it’s pretty surprising, frankly, that anything could be like this right now, but TSA has come under a lot of criticism since we published this report exposing the program on Sunday. So, everyone from Senate, Commerce, Democratic Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts to Republican Trey Gowdy, head of House oversight, I mean, it’s a far-ranging group of people who have been demanding answers from TSA. And TSA has agreed to brief the four committees who have oversight over the agency on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last year, Congressmember Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican, introduced a bill that would require the Federal Air Marshal Service to better incorporate risk assessment in its strategy. Here’s the congressman speaking earlier this year from the floor of the House.

REP. JODY HICE: Last year, I learned that while the Federal Air Marshal Service considers its travel budget and the number of personnel when determining which flights will be covered by air marshals, they do not consider risk. This current system might maximize the number of flights covered by air marshals, but it does not ensure that the highest-risked flights, those likely to be hijacked by a potential terrorist, would be covered by air marshals. The Strengthening Aviation Security Act would fix this flawed policy by requiring the Federal Air Marshal Service to incorporate risk in its deployment strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Jody Hice, a congressman, Republican Georgia congressmember. If you can comment on this and also the organizations like CAIR, the Council of American Arab [sic] Islamic Relations, who are deeply concerned about who gets followed, who’s getting profiled here?

JANA WINTER: I guess for your first point, Jody Hice, when he introduced this bill, it’s pretty clear that this is not what he had in mind. I wouldn’t speak for the congressman, of course, but they are now removing air marshals from flights with people who are either on a watchlist or on routes that are considered high risk, and put instead on a flight to follow someone who has not committed any crime or is even suspected of committing a crime, simply because they have, for example, traveled to Turkey recently. So, it’s understandable that there is a lot of concerns on both sides of the aisle, and just on a basic level, from CAIR, from the ACLU and, frankly, from people on the far right, as well, who are saying, you know, “What is going on? Why—I mean, what are they using to base the decisions on who to follow?” This is set up for a potential equal protection problem. What kind of profiling does this do? We have a lot of questions, and certainly there are concerns from pretty much everyone right now.

AMY GOODMAN: CAIR, by the way, is the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, Jana, in terms of the TSA itself, we only have a little bit more time, but how extensive is the normal TSA program? Do we have any idea of approximately how many air marshals there are in the United States and what their normal workload is?

JANA WINTER: Right. So, I know that the Federal Air Marshal Service is under TSA, so they control it. And in 2015, their budget was $800 million. And they only have a little under 3,000 flying FAMs, which is what they call the air marshals who are actually flying around the country on flights every day. And there are more than 40,000 flights domestically every day. So you have a very small percentage already of where air marshals are going to be. So, to divert them to follow people just because they’ve come back from Turkey leads to, for example, them being assigned to follow a Southwest flight attendant who was literally working that flight, because she had suspicious travel patterns, probably job-related. So, yeah, that’s where we’re at: a lot of questions. Hopefully some will be answered this week.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to follow this, as you are. Jana Winter, Boston Globe Spotlight fellow. We’ll link to your piece, “Welcome to the Quiet Skies.”

JANA WINTER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we remember the legendary congressmember, mayor, activist, Ron Dellums.

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