TSA tracking unsuspecting air travelers

Federal air marshals are tracking American citizens who aren't suspected of a crime or aren't on a terrorist watch list as part of a long-running Transportation Security Administration program.

Posted Updated

Sloane Heffernan
, WRAL reporter
MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Federal air marshals are tracking American citizens who aren't suspected of a crime or aren't on a terrorist watch list as part of a long-running Transportation Security Administration program.

TSA officials said the program, known as Operation Quiet Skies, has been around in some form since 2010, but it had never been publicly disclosed until the Boston Globe newspaper reported on it over the weekend.

The TSA uses information from the intelligence community and people's previous travel patterns to help choose whom to target, officials said, and air marshals track people in airports and on flights who exhibit behavioral cues associated with those of terrorists, such as excessive fidgeting, excessive perspiration, rapid eye blinking and rubbing or wringing hands. Marshals also note if people are abnormally aware of their surroundings, appear different than previously described or if they slept during a flight.

The aim of the program is to gather details about the passengers' behavior on the plane to try to thwart any potential aviation threats, officials said.

"The program absolutely isn't intended to surveil ordinary Americans," TSA officials said in a statement. "Instead, its purpose is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel – no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and information presents the need for increased watch and deterrence. The program analyzes information on a passenger's travel patterns while taking the whole picture into account and adds an additional line of defense to aviation security."

Officials wouldn't say whether any terrorist plots have been thwarted because of the program.

Passengers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Monday had mixed reactions to Operation Quiet Skies.

"If there is historical evidence or any data to support that these kinds of behaviors tend to be somebody who might be dangerous, then possibly watch out for them. But I don't know that you would target people and follow them through the airport," Erin MacKenzie said.

"I do believe that it's for safety reasons, but I think it does affect privacy and just makes you feel uncomfortable when you're boarding a plane to know that someone might have stigmatized you just based on how you look or how you dress or how you behave," Nizar Talaat said.

"I think that's a little weird," Russ Laczniak said. "People might just be a little nervous about flying, and as a result, a marshal has to fly with them? That doesn't seem right to me."

"It's for our safety. It's not for an irrational thought or a bad profiling. I think it's for our safety, for the general public," John Williams said.

"I'm just a person trying to get home," Earl Sincere said. "If they want to track me, please do. You'll find out that I have dirty underclothes in my luggage."

About 40 to 50 passengers are tracked every day on domestic flights under thr program, but TSA officials said individuals are not targeted based on race or nationality.

All American citizens who enter the United States are automatically considered for inclusion in the program as officials check their names against watch lists and examine their patterns of travel, according to agency documents obtained by the Boston Globe.

An air marshal told CNN some marshals have concerns about the program, saying focusing on passengers who "look suspicious" pulls the marshals away from their mission of protecting the cockpit because they are keeping up surveillance of the individual. That means rearranging marshals' seating and which flights they are on.

Related Topics


Copyright 2023 by and CNN. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.