Quiet Skies: Air Marshals are following thousands of random Americans through airports and on planes, for no articulatable purpose

Federal Air Marshals are furious that they have been tasked to follow thousands of Americans who are not on any watch-list and not suspected of any crime; they shadow these people (who are selected for surveillance on the basis of flimsy criteria like once having visited Turkey) and send minute-by-minute updates to the TSA, noting whether their targets are sleeping, using more than one phone, waiting until the last minute to board their planes, observing boarding areas from a distance, and other innocuous behaviors.

The program, called "Quiet Skies," is a secret, and was detailed in an explosive Boston Globe report by Jana Winter, who obtained a trove of Air Marshal text messages in which the officers complain to one another about the fool's errand they're on, question its legality, and moot informing Congress about its wastefulness and creepiness.

Among the thousands of Americans who've been targeted by Quiet Skies are flight attendants and law enforcement officers.

Quiet Skies began in March, and Air Marshals have repeatedly questioned the program's usefulness and legality with their superiors, only to be rebuffed.

The head of the Air Marshal Service condemned Quiet Skies, saying "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."

The program relies on 15 rules to screen passengers, according to a May agency bulletin, and the criteria appear broad: "rules may target" people whose travel patterns or behaviors match those of known or suspected terrorists, or people "possibly affiliated" with someone on a watch list.

The full list of criteria for Quiet Skies screening was unavailable to the Globe, and is a mystery even to the air marshals who field the surveillance requests the program generates. TSA declined to comment.

When someone on the Quiet Skies list is selected for surveillance, a team of air marshals is placed on the person's next flight. The team receives a file containing a photo and basic information — such as date and place of birth — about the target, according to agency documents.

TSA is tracking regular travelers like terrorists in secret surveillance program [Jana Winter/Boston Globe]

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