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TSA Will No Longer Engage In Suspicionless, Cross-Country Surveillance Of Airplane Passengers

Earlier this year, news leaked out about an unannounced TSA program. "Quiet Skies" was the TSA's latest boondoggle, one that sent air marshals all over the US, tailing travelers just because. Things as simple as boarding too late/too early or using the restroom at the wrong time were designated suspicious behavior. It's was such a shady program even the air marshals didn't like it. Some felt it was illegal. Others found it ridiculous. But nearly every air marshal who spoke about the program called it as waste of time and money.

Following the Boston Globe's exposure of the program, the TSA was summoned to a Congressional hearing to answer questions about "Quiet Skies." The TSA admitted the program had caught zero terrorists but had managed to surveil nearly 5,000 individuals en route to this failure. The agency claimed the useless program was subject to "robust oversight" -- a claim hilariously delivered to members of Congress who had first heard about the program from the Boston Globe.

The TSA refused to say it would end the program, even as the air marshals union publicly stated it did not support the program's unwarranted surveillance or its waste of limited resources.

The Boston Globe has some good news to report: the TSA is apparently dismantling the program the paper exposed.

The Transportation Security Administration has curtailed its controversial “Quiet Skies” domestic surveillance program, following widespread criticism that federal air marshals were spying on thousands of unwitting fliers who are not suspected of any crime or on any terrorist watch list.

Agency officials told the Globe that air marshals no longer document the minor movements and behavior of these travelers, such as whether they fidget in the airport, go to the bathroom during the flight, or seem, according to the agency’s own checklist, to have a “cold, penetrating stare.”

The agency said it has also stopped following passengers through baggage claim and no longer compiles extensive reports on travelers who failed to rouse suspicions.

“Any routine passenger behaviors on a plane that would be seen as a normal behavior we are no longer capturing that,” said David Kohl, the new director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, in an interview.

"Quiet Skies" still exists, but without most of the stupid/unconstitutional stuff that made "Quiet Skies" shorthand for "Orwellian dystopia." This may end the criticism but it won't stop the bleeding. The Boston Globe reports both the Government Accountability Office and DHS Inspector General are investigating the program. Both entities want to know more about the "robustly overseen" program, especially in terms of cost effectiveness.

Even if the program was cost effective (the air marshals don't believe it is -- and they should know), the tactics deployed would not be any less questionable. The TSA engaged in direct surveillance of passengers with no reasonable, articulable reason for doing so. The program's very existence is lawsuit bait, even if passengers and activists may have trouble showing they have standing to sue.

And the nonexistent "robust oversight" the TSA cited in defense of a program its oversight hadn't heard of now actually exists and will be performing some actual oversight.

“We have conducted a bipartisan investigation over the past three years, and it is now time to convert our oversight findings into concrete reforms to help improve TSA’s ability to carry out its vital security missions,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the Globe.

Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said oversight hearings next year will aim to “ensure TSA meets all privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties requirements.”

The TSA is definitely still going to surveil some travelers. It just won't be doing at the scale it was with "Quiet Skies." And it will no longer be able to justify this pervasive surveillance with specious criteria like "passenger slept during flight." It will have to show its work. Even better, it will have to show the work it's already done to a number of agencies and government representatives. And it doesn't even have a single win in the "busted terrorist" column to justify its actions.

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