Irrational Fears Undermine Privacy and a Prudent Response to Terrorism

The exposure of the Transportation Safety Administration’s ‘Quiet Skies’ program is a chance to consider what is necessary protection and what is security theater

August 7, 2018

The name “Quiet Skies” suggests a meadow, far from the madding noise of helicopters and jets, where the only sounds are from crickets, a burbling stream, and songbirds. 

In reality, Quiet Skies is the name of a formerly secret government program that combines quasi-legal disdain for the privacy of law-abiding citizens with costly ineffectuality in the name of enhanced security.

Quiet Skies was recently exposed by Jana Winter in The Boston Globe as an invasive Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) program under which federal air marshals shadow unsuspecting travelers on planes and in airports dutifully recording their behavior. The targets, it must be stressed, are Americans not on any terrorism watch list. 

A TSA checklist, obtained by the Globe, includes such suspicious behavior as sleeping during a flight and reversing direction while walking through an airport. Equally alarming are people who shaved or otherwise changed their appearance in an airport bathroom or those who boarded their flight last. 

The program dates from 2012, when TSA began conducting name checks on domestic airline passengers. TSA expanded its efforts this March with what the agency euphemistically calls “special mission coverage.” Roughly 5,000 travelers have been subjected to what a TSA spokesman assured the Globe is “an additional line of defense to aviation security.”

And exactly how many plots and would-be terrorists have been uncovered because air marshals record such damning behavior as passengers displaying a “cold penetrating stare”? According to leaks from a TSA briefing for congressional staffers last week, the number is exactly zero. And it is not exactly reassuring that the TSA only shares the results of their gumshoe investigations with other federal agencies if air marshals observe “significant derogatory information.”  

TSA adamantly insists that the program will continue. And given the steady erosion of privacy in the name of enhanced security, TSA may face nothing worse than a few skeptical congressional hearings. Maybe, in a pinch, TSA will have to repackage the program with a new name like Silent Surroundings. After all, The Washington Post argued, in a contrarian editorial partly supportive of Quiet Skies, “The TSA is tasked with finding needles in enormous haystacks; it is reasonable for the agency to zoom in on anything needlelike rather than closely scrutinizing every piece of hay.”

The 9/11 attacks were nearly 17 years ago. That, by the way, is roughly the interval between the end of World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the fear lingers, whether it is rational or not. A June 2017 Gallup Poll found that more than 40 percent of Americans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that they or someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism. 

An unalterable truth of the 21st century is that it is almost impossible for the government to relax any security program, even if it is expensive and unneeded. A recent article by political scientist John Mueller and academic risk analyst Mark Stewart in Vox pointed out that it costs roughly $1 billion to keep the 2,000 to 3,000 air marshals flying. Mueller and Stewart argued that most of this spending is unneeded since “air marshals are there primarily to deal with attacks like 9/11 in which terrorists seek to commandeer an airliner, [but] there have been no such attempts anywhere in the world since 2001.”

Occasionally, even the TSA recognizes the waste associated with security theater. CNN reported that the agency, in an effort to save $115 million, is sensibly considering eliminating security at 150 smaller airports, which handle planes with no more than 60 passengers. The outrage over the CNN story was immediate. Airline security expert Glen Winn told the Associated Press that he considered such a shift “unbelievable, totally beyond comprehension.” Terrorists, according to Winn, “will just change their plans immediately.” 

Amid the hysteria, it is worth pointing out that a 40-seat plane does not seem like a significantly more at-risk terrorist target than an inter-city bus or a commuter train. But few Americans feel panicked by the absence of metal detectors at bus stations and on railroad platforms. 

The point is not to turn a blind eye to real threats but rather to underscore how irrational fears undermine privacy and a prudent response to terrorism. It seems doubtful that the 2018 successors to al-Qaeda will be deterred by federal air marshals keeping a running tab on bathroom trips by passengers during bumpy flights. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Pixabay Creative Commons)