The TSA’s “Quiet Skies” program continues to suffer under scrutiny. When details first leaked out about the TSA’s suspicionless surveillance program, even the air marshals tasked with tailing non-terrorists all over the nation seemed concerned. Marshals questioned the “legality and validity” of the program that sent them after people no government agency had conclusively tied to terrorist organizations or activities. Simply changing flights in the wrong country was enough to initiate the process.
First, the TSA lost the support of the marshals. Then it lost itself. The TSA admitted during a Congressional hearing that it had trailed over 5,000 travelers (in less than four months!) but had yet to turn up even a single terrorist. Nonetheless, it stated it would continue to trail thousands of people a year, presumably in hopes of preventing another zero terrorist attacks.
Then it lost the Government Accountability Office. The GAO’s investigation of the program contained more investigative activity than the program itself. According to its report, the TSA felt surveillance was good but measuring the outcome was bad. When you’re trailing 5,000 people and stopping zero terrorists, the less you know, the better. Not being able to track effectiveness appeared to be a feature of “Quiet Skies,” rather than a bug.
Now it’s lost the TSA’s Inspector General. The title of the report [PDF] underplays the findings, stating the obvious while also understating the obvious: TSA Needs to Improve Management of the Quiet Skies Program. A good alternative title would be “TSA Needs to Scrap the Quiet Skies Program Until it Can Come Up with Something that Might Actually Stop Terrorists.”
TSA did not properly plan, implement, and manage the Quiet Skies program to meet the program’s mission of mitigating the threat to commercial aviation posed by higher risk passengers.
In slightly more detail, the TSA did nothing to set up the program correctly or ensure it actually worked. The IG says the TSA never developed performance goals or other metrics to gauge the effectiveness of the suspicionless surveillance. It also ignored its internal guidance to more effectively deploy its ineffective program.
This occurred because TSA lacked sufficient, centralized oversight to ensure the Quiet Skies program operated as intended.