A controversial US program to monitor “high risk” passengers at airports and domestic flights was poorly managed. Some passengers continue to be monitored after they are no longer classified as a risk. This was the result of a government audit.
The Transportation Security Administration has failed “to plan, implement, and manage the Quiet Skies program to accomplish the program’s mission to mitigate threats to commercial aviation,” the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspectorate General said in its audit that was released this week.
The TSA agreed to some recommendations to improve oversight of the Quiet Skies program, but declined to conclude that the agency did not follow its own guidelines and did not demonstrate that the program makes air travel safer.
In a letter submitted in response to the audit, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said that 58 travelers originally screened from 2014-2020 under the Quiet Skies program were eventually identified as “known or suspected terrorists” and were banned from flying -Government watch lists have been set.
“These data show that Quiet Skies ‘selected participants are approximately 30 times more likely to be actually at high risk than a randomly selected passenger, confirming Quiet Skies’ value in identifying high risk trips,” he said.
The program started in 2012 but was first reported by the Boston Globe in 2018. An audit was started shortly after the program was published. The TSA has described the program as an attempt to prevent terrorism by conducting additional checks at TSA checkpoints on US citizens who have not broken the law but are raising red flags based on their travel patterns.
Using an automated system, airlines add special coding to the boarding passes of passengers on the Quiet Skies list so that TSA officials can pull those travelers aside for additional security checkpoints.
In addition, according to the TSA, federal air marshals who monitor travelers board the same flight and take notes if those passengers fidget, sweat, shiver, stare, or display other suspicious behavior.
The Quiet Skies program is conducted separately from the federal government’s watch list, which is intended to monitor known or suspected terrorists.
Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have criticized the program, stating that it may select law-abiding travelers for harassment based on race or religion – an allegation the TSA has denied.
Gadeir Abbas, lead litigator at CAIR, said the exam uses “the sharpest language you can see in an OIG report that speaks of the futility of anything”.
Despite the recommendations of the audit, he said, “There is no solution to this nonsense. TSA should end Quiet Skies once and for all. “
Hugh Handeyside, senior attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project, also called for the program to be discontinued in light of the audit. “Nothing in the report suggests that the program’s fundamental shortcomings can be addressed,” he said. “The entire program must be dismantled.”
The audit found that the program had not adopted procedures to measure the effectiveness of the program in maintaining the sky and recommended the establishment of a central unit to monitor and manage the program with quarterly reports and regular performance targets.
“The TSA did not ensure that oversight meetings were documented as needed and did not update their policies and procedures to reflect program operations,” the audit said.
The audit was edited to remove a description of how travelers would be removed from the Quiet Skies list. However, the audit found that software problems in 2017 and 2018 resulted in people staying on the list long after they were no longer classified as a risk.
In the absence of effective procedures to ensure that individuals are removed from the list after they are no longer identified as a risk, the TSA may, according to the audit, subject travelers to increased scrutiny and surveillance by air marshals than necessary.
In some cases, the audit found, the TSA did not perform additional checks on passengers who were on the list because the airlines did not encode their boarding passes.