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Passenger screening will remain at smaller airports

Veiligheidscontrole

Flight attendant: “The air marshal asked me if we could hang out during the layover. No one will have to find out. It is not like your husband is here.”

Numerous media copied the news CNN published on August 1, 2018. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be considering to eliminate passenger screening at more than 150 small and medium sized airfields across the USA, which is approximately ⅓ of all US airports. However, this seems one of the extremely rare cases in which CNN was not accurate.

One may wonder what considering something means. In every organization preliminary ideas may develop to proposals to be considered. Even in that stage the proposal may never be adopted. What CNN spoke about was “an exercise from a pre-decisional budget meeting,” according to TSA spokesman Michael Bilello.

Thus, it was an idea that came up in a very early stage, still far away from actively considering such a move. It is common practice that similar preliminary ideas come on the table during brainstorming sessions, but often they do not make it to the stage of actively considering them.

Bilello makes this very clear: “It is not uncommon for government agencies to go through these budget exercises where you identify efficiencies and show the cost savings. We have not even gotten to the risk assessment phase. The bottom line is no decision has been made.”

For the record, CNN did not report that a decision was made, but rather that the TSA was considering to eliminate passenger screening at smaller airports. But they did speak about a proposal, whereas in reality it was just a preliminary idea that might be discussed to see whether it would be worthwhile to assess the impact and risks.

More interesting seems Bilello’s remark about the so-called Quiet Skies program as revealed by the Boston Globe. This program is about federal air marshals secretly tracking dozens of American travelers who are not listed on government watch lists or suspected of a crime.

A flight attendant once told about her experience with an air marshal. “He came up to me while working in the back galley and asked me if we could hang out during the layover. It is OK, he said. No one will have to find out. It is not like your husband is here. That is when I let him know he is our pilot.”

Air marshals have proved to be fairly useless. They claim first or business class seats from airlines that must give the seats for free. So far, air marshals never thwarted any terrorist act. Whenever terrorist acts were thwarted in aircraft, it was thanks to intervening passengers.

This is logical because air marshals do not travel in economy class, whereas in all so far known cases the terrorist(s) invariably traveled in economy class. The Quiet Skies program seems to aim at improving the reputation of air marshals by letting them do something that might be more useful than sleeping in a premium seat.

According to Bilello the Quiet Skies does not target ordinary or normal citizens. “These are people who have a very unique travel pattern, in addition to other information which is intelligence-based,” he says. Outsiders like us cannot judge whether this is more or less true.

Thus, the question is how robust the program’s oversight is by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). We are not optimistic about it as experts – including former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Russell Tice – call the FISC a rubber stamp because it almost automatically grants requests for electronic surveillance warrants.

Related: “How to spend (or waste) billions

Tags: air marshals, surveillance, Quiet Skies program, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

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