Former TSA Administrator Discusses 'Quiet Skies' Surveillance Program
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Under a program called Quiet Skies, federal air marshals have kept watch on certain travelers, noting whether they, say, fidget, stare or sweat on a lot - onboard flights. And these aren't people on watch lists or under investigation. Rather, as the Boston Globe first reported this weekend, they're tracked because of their behavior or travel patterns. John Pistole was TSA administrator when the program began in 2010. I asked him to explain why it was launched.
JOHN PISTOLE: We looked at opportunities to maximize the use of our federal air marshals, who, of course, are one of the last lines of defense in a layered strategy. And so it's really just trying to maximize their use in an efficient and effective way that didn't require additional resources.
CORNISH: Now, our understanding is that it reportedly places U.S. air marshals on flights with U.S. citizens that the TSA has tagged for further monitoring. But you're doing this without a warrant - right? - without probable cause, a court getting involved. Is it legal?
PISTOLE: Well, of course. Yeah. And of course all this was approved by not only TSA's general counsel, but the Department of Homeland Security's counsel and privacy and civil liberties folks.
CORNISH: I know you've worked for the FBI, right? I mean, (laughter) you were deputy director there. Doesn't this - why doesn't this feel like it's getting around the rules of domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens?
PISTOLE: Well, the purpose of this program is to say, OK, if we have people on board really falling into two categories - known groups of people who for example are on a watch list as a selectee, meaning they are given additional screening when - before they get on the plane, but then others who would be in a category of unknowns but who act suspiciously on a plane.
So we already have federal air marshals on a number of flights. So why not maximize their use by saying, if there is a selectee on a flight who is, again, on a terrorist watch list, shouldn't we be paying attention to that person? And then secondly, if somebody is acting erratically, displaying strange behavior - whether they're trying to light their shoe on fire, you know, like Richard Reid, or their underwear, like Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber - those are all opportunities to use the resources we already have on board and just different opportunities there.
CORNISH: Now that you are no longer head of the TSA, can you tell us whether or not this program thwarted any terror attacks while you were there?
PISTOLE: So I don't know, frankly. When I was there, identified a number of suspicious activity in terms of erratic or - you hear sometimes in the news about air marshals being called upon by flight attendants, flight crew, for assistance when the passenger's particularly unruly or something. So that has happened. But I don't know offhand. So I'd have to defer to TSA whether that has resulted in any - anybody identified as a suspected terrorist.
CORNISH: Based on what you've read and based on what you know about the program, has Quiet Skies changed in any way from your original understanding of how the program was going to work?
PISTOLE: Well, so I don't know that (laughter) because I haven't been in office for over three years. So my understanding is that it's - it has not changed much from when it was started and - when we started in 2010.
CORNISH: And finally, what's your response to people who say, if I haven't been suspected of a crime and I'm not on a terror watch list, this is messed up - why should I be monitored?
PISTOLE: Well, again, you're not being (laughter) monitored. That - you're being observed. And if your behavior, your actions, demonstrate that you are of concern, then that's a different matter than saying you're not on a watch list because people are added to and taken off watch lists every day. And it's because of new information, including behavior - erratic behavior, whatever, mainly because of intelligence says this is somebody that the U.S. government needs to be aware of.
CORNISH: John Pistole is president of Anderson University in Indiana. He was also the head of the TSA from 2010 to 2014. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
PISTOLE: Thank you, Audie. Good to talk to you.
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