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COMMENTARY

Do 'Quiet Skies' equal safe skies?

Putting air marshals on duty on flights with 'suspicious' passengers is a reasonable approach, but the 'Quiet Skies' programme could stand a bit of scrutiny in Congress

Washington DC

THE Boston Globe revealed over the weekend that federal air marshals are watching Americans who are not under formal investigation, noting apparently suspicious behaviours such as excessive sweating, changing clothes and going to the bathroom frequently.

The report about the "Quiet Skies" programme raised immediate concerns about creepy and unnecessary surveillance.

John Casaretti, president of the Air Marshal Association, told the Globe that "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".

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In fact, the programme may not be as creepy or as wasteful as the fallout suggests.

But Congress should step in now and make sure, bringing the public along as it does.

Quiet Skies began as an effort at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to better allocate air marshals' time.

A TSA spokesman said that air marshals used to be assigned to first-class seats on large airliners crossing the country, under the logic that big, fuel-laden planes would be the most attractive targets for terrorists, and the marshals could serve as the last line of defence against terrorists attempting to take the cockpit.

But that meant air marshals were spreading themselves thin across lots of flights on which there was no inkling of a threat.

The TSA decided to redirect air marshals to flights where officials had reason to believe someone suspicious was on board.

The TSA adds passengers to the Quiet Skies list for scrutiny after it identifies alarming patterns of international travel and other suspicious signs.

According to agency documents, air marshals then watch those passengers for "up to 90 days or three encounters".

Among other things, the marshals employ behaviour detection techniques similar to those that TSA agents use to evaluate all passengers at security checkpoints, such as watching for signs of excessive nervousness.

Since airliners are spaces where no one expects privacy, it is unlikely the marshals' scrutiny constitutes an illegal search.

If the 90 days pass without incident, the scrutinised passengers are removed from the list and their files are closed and later purged, the TSA spokesman said.

The TSA's drive to focus resources on potential threats makes sense. It has led to programmes such as TSA PreCheck, which reduces burdens on non-dangerous airline passengers every day.

Quiet Skies appears to be a less visible manifestation of the same logic. The TSA could no doubt adjust Quiet Skies.

It can put air marshals on smaller planes travelling off-the-beaten-path routes. The agency could surely combine passenger-threat information with an assessment of whether an aircraft is a likely terrorist target to better deploy air marshals.

Moreover, now that Quiet Skies has been revealed and concerns are mounting, Congress should hold hearings on the programme.

Lawmakers should focus on how well TSA is targeting passengers for scrutiny, and ensure that Americans do not get caught on the Quiet Skies list for long periods of time and that files are not misused - for example, by subjecting individuals to different forms of scrutiny at a later date, even if their Quiet Skies files were closed after 90 days.

The TSA is tasked with finding needles in enormous haystacks; it is reasonable for the agency to zoom in on anything needle-like rather than closely scrutinising every piece of hay. WP