TSA Says They’re Not Following Ordinary Americans. That’s Not True.

Last month the Boston Globe revealed the existence of a TSA program to follow ordinary Americans and notes their habits and behaviors for a file even though these passengers are on no threat list.

It turns out that not a single person being followed under this program turned out to be a threat or even worth any additional followup.

TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: Tocqueville)

The TSA continues to claim that ordinary citizens aren’t being caught up in the Quiet Skies surveillance program but that isn’t true.

Usry, a mother of two from Williamsburg, Va., was targeted because she had recently flown to Turkey for an arts-and-crafts course, a country that is a focal point of the program, according to documents and air marshals with direct knowledge of Quiet Skies.

In addition to Usry, other targets identified by the Globe include star WNBA player Courtney Vandersloot; a working flight attendant; a business executive; and a law enforcement officer for another federal agency, according to documents obtained by the Globe and air marshals with direct knowledge of the surveillance.

The findings underscore concerns that Quiet Skies is infringing on people’s privacy for reasons that are unclear and may yield little gain — to date, air marshals have put roughly 5,000 people under Quiet Skies surveillance but none deemed worthy of additional scrutiny.

The mother of two from Williamsburg was approved for TSA PreCheck but was still followed by agents just a month later because:

  • She “was between the ages of 16 and 50”
  • Flew to Turkey despite having “a non-Turkish name”
  • Stayed “seven days or more.”
  • Traveled on a one way ticket (with a separate one way ticket home, because buying the two tickets separately was cheaper)

She says, “I sat in a training development center for a week and painted things..I did arts and crafts.”

Air marshals were given a “special mission coverage” dossier on her with her name and image, date of birth, hair and eye color and “an identification number.” They were assigned seats near her, and instructed to take notes on her behavior through the airport and on board including monitoring her bathroom use.

One of the air marshals apparently timed their boarding to coincide with her and struck up a conversation. She thought the man was flirting with her. He asked about her hotel.

She asks something every American should have been asking at least since Edward Snowden,

“I’d like my government to explain to me why my tax dollars are best spent surveilling completely innocent citizens, violating their privacy, and making ordinary people feel as though they’ve behaved in a manner that invites skepticism and scrutiny,” she said. “Are the inherent, guaranteed rights of American citizens something to be thrown out because we feel like it? And why does no one have to answer for that?”

Quiet Skies, by the way, is a program which was expanded in March presumably because TSA thinks it is so successful. That same month a TSA official gave a deposition stating they do “not perform intelligence collection on passengers at airports.” So add giving false testimony to the litany of behaviors we let slide at TSA.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You might think the gov’t would do more research on their “subjects” before following them with an air marshall. I mean, aside from the privacy issues, this is very expensive surveillance. Slapping a cheap “SSSS” on a boarding pass (which happened to me after I had an Istanbul stopover a couple years ago) and subjecting the “victims” to a thorough TSA check would seem the maximum the gov’t would do without a real investigation. But I guess not!

  2. Just another TSA conundrum along with why, having qualified for TSA Pre-check, I am subjected to a pat down, every single time I fly. And I even use the scanner due to replacement parts. Isn’t it interesting too that the Globe seems to consider that the Quiet Skies program is infringing on a person’s privacy and yet it is perfectly acceptable for TSA to grope elderly people at the airport because they may be a threat, even though most of them could not easily chase a turtle. I, personally, consider my body, all parts of it to be private.

  3. @American – I’m sure 99.99^ of people wouldn’t want to touch you either.
    @Papa Gary – THANK YOU for keeping us safe. You’re my true American hero now.

  4. Hey, this is trump’s America, where “truth isn’t the truth”…so lying is just fine.

    As to the author’s comment to Gus, the controversy in the article is not about the program itself but in lying not to admit it. This has reached new, unimaginable heights with this president, so Gus’ comment is not out of line.

  5. @omneforus–whowould fly to Turkey for an arts and crafts class? I would.

    I do a lot of spinning and weaving and I will be flying to Turkey one-way to learn how to use a Turkush drop spindle to spin yarn, then spend another week sightseeing before moving on.

  6. The airports are a microcosm of what it looks like to live in a surveillance state. Your person is not secure, your valuables can be stolen by the Feds at will, your activities are restricted, and you have no freedom of speech. Your cash might be seized using the excuse that it is illegal. You are being monitored all the time. Plus, as this article points out, you might be capriciously followed.

    I personally blame the Bush Administration for the current TSA. He put it in place as a reaction to the 9/11.

    The Bush expanded the use of the FISA courts, first to spy only on Terrorists. However, the courts are secret, and so basically they started spying on everyone they wanted with various flimsy excuses.

    The Bush Administration used 9/11 as an excuse to monitor on all banking financial transactions (to the degree possible) worldwide.

    To show how invasive this financial monitoring is. USA banks are required by the Feds to monitor all bank accounts and justify all out of the ordinary transactions. Withdraw $10,000 in cash, the bank is required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (“SAR”) with the Feds. Withdraw $4,000, $3,500, and $2,500 to avoid the SAR, that is called structuring. Seriously, it is not really your own money if you have to explain to the Fed what you are doing with it.

    To quote Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” To be honest, I think we are very close to losing our freedom in this country.

  7. Personally, I want to see Istanbul in person. It seems like every action movie I have seen has a scene in Istanbul. However, I do not want to get an “SSSS” on my passport so I have not scheduled a trip.

  8. That woman’s experience sounds really creepy. It’s bad enough that women feel like they have to take extra precautions for safety reasons. We shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe by our own government. Who’s to say that this mom or Ms. Vandersloot or any other flyer wasn’t put on this surveillance list because some TSA nutjob is using their employer’s lack of standards to stalk someone?

  9. Well…… Gary for years you’ve advocated (whined, bitched, complained etc.) for a more intelligence-driven approach. Now they’re doing it and you’re still whining, bitching and complaining. Were they following you? If they weren’t, maybe the should have

  10. Turkey has a ton of traditional crafts, especially weaving and rug making, as well as pottery and meerschaum, so that makes sense.

    As a person who’s been to Turkey twice for over a week, solo, and in that age group, I’m probably on that list. Hope my marshall likes watching me get soda in the American lounge. Epic has done a FOIA request for list criteria: https://epic.org/2018/07/epic-seeks-records-on-quietski.html

    I’m wondering if I FOIA requested my own info from TSA if this would come up?

  11. Well, having taken multiple work trips to Turkey and Azerbaijan, along with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Pakistan and Yemen among other places, I’d be surprised if the TSA isn’t interested in my comings and goings.

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