The Federal Air Marshal Service is arguably the least competent law enforcement agency in the country. Naturally they are part of the TSA, which reportedly has a program to make sure air marshals don’t show up to the airport drunk.
No air marshal has ever stopped a terrorist or hijacker since the service was founded in 1962. Although an air marshal did shoot and kill a US citizen in 2005. If something really bad did happen on a flight and an air marshal was onboard they lack the training to do anything about it.
Liam Neeson Was an Air Marshal in the 2014 film “Non-Stop”
Last year an air marshal left a loaded gun in the lavatory of a Delta flight. Three years ago an air marshal left a loaded gun in a Newark airport bathroom and two years ago in a Philadelphia airport restroom. In 2001 an air marshal left a handgun in an aircraft lavatory where it was found by a teenager.
Two and a half years ago an air marshal sued for being denied his first choice of meal in first class and because a flight attendant spilled a drink on him. He approached the cockpit to report these incidents to the captain — and threatened the pilot.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Air marshals have smuggled cocaine, engaged in sex trafficking, and discharged their weapons in hotels and bars. We spend $200 million per arrest on the air marshal program. And to be clear that is not $200 million per arrest of a terror suspect, most are just passengers behaving badly.
Combining their penchant for both abuse of power and incompetence, the Boston Globe reports on an air marshal program to engage in traveler surveillance. The program launched in March and is called “Quiet Skies” and “gives the agency broad discretion over which air travelers to focus on and how closely they are tracked.”
Federal air marshals have begun following ordinary US citizens not suspected of a crime or on any terrorist watch list and collecting extensive information about their movements and behavior under a new domestic surveillance program that is drawing criticism from within the agency.
If you’ve traveled to the Mideast you may be surveilled in the airport. Passengers who “fidget, use a computer, have a “jump” in their Adam’s apple” have their activities recorded minute-by-minute during travel, with observations by armed undercover agents sent back to TSA. (Read a program bulletin, marked SSI, here .pdf)
The Quiet Skies behavior list includes whether a subject is “abnormally aware of surroundings” such as observing boarding gate from afar, looking at reflection in storefront windows, boarding last, changing clothes or shaving in the airport or on a plane (better not use airline pajamas!). They record whether or not you sleep on the plane.
When the air marshals decide to surveil you, you get air marshals on your next flight. They “receive[..] a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth” and they’ll be “taking notes on whether travelers use a phone, go to the bathroom, chat with others, or change clothes.”
There are legal questions raised by surveillance of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. About 35 passengers a day are tracked under this program. Responding to questions about legality of the program, TSA says they brief Congress to ensure political support.
(HT: Shane S., Robert W. and a reader who asked not to be named.)