TSA needs to answer important questions on 'Quiet Skies' program
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The Transportation Security Administration has been charged with protecting our nation’s transportation systems since the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Over the past 16 years, the agency has worked to fine-tune security processes and protocols with the singular focus of keeping the people and commerce that rely on our various transportation modalities safe. That includes work to ensure TSA resources are focused on the most significant and credible threats and risks.

The Boston Globe recently reported on a program that raises fresh questions about how TSA is carrying out its mission. In an article entitled “Welcome to the Quiet Skies,” the Boston Globe reports on the “Quiet Skies” program within TSA’s Federal Air Marshal Service in which air marshals monitor certain passengers, based on TSA’s intelligence rules, which include suspicious travel patterns.

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Any American would have serious concerns about monitoring or surveillance, particularly when surveillance is based upon discrete intelligence and is kept secret. I share those concerns, and there’s a lot that we need to know to assess the legality and efficacy of such a program. At a minimum, any such program requires extremely clear parameters and appropriate privacy and due process protections, must be non-discriminatory, and should be grounded in actionable intelligence.

We need to know how TSA protects people with appropriate privacy and due process considerations in the process of monitoring. Are we providing enough protection for people who are followed and how do we provide them with the ability to defend themselves with the due process afforded by our criminal justice system?

We need to know how TSA ensures their intelligence rules and the activities of Air Marshals comply with civil rights law, preventing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and other protected statuses. Racial profiling has been a point of concern with TSA in the past, and excessive focus on a single group, like Muslims, which would not only be discriminatory but could also result in real threats being missed.

We also need to know how TSA is conducting oversight, ensuring that every instance of monitoring and every action taken by FAMS is legally authorized and follows applicable protections for those being monitored.

Congress has a role to play in assessing this program to make certain that its effective, necessary, and meets its goals in a legal and responsible way. Last week, I joined Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDems eye ambitious agenda if House flips Trump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash Washington to finally focus on threat to supply-chain risk management MORE (D-Miss.) on a letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske requesting answers to the questions above and many others.

Quiet Skies isn’t the only way that TSA has tried new layers of security to use its resources more efficiently. The Pre-Check program for vetted travelers serves the same purpose; the real value of that program is not simply passenger facilitation, it is the pre-screening process itself. By creating a group of passengers who are vetted and known to be low-risk, TSA agents can focus their time and energy on other individuals.

TSA has a critical homeland security mission to carry out. They’re best-able to do so when they take an intelligence-informed, risk-based approach that includes preventing improper surveillance of people because of their religion, ethnicity, or appearance. If a program meets these requirements, it could be a valuable way to focus TSA’s limited resources. But first, TSA owes Congress and the American people answers to legitimate and timely questions about Quiet Skies. We all have an interest in ensuring that TSA’s programs are effective at protecting the traveling public, while avoiding practices that improperly and unfairly target people because of their religion, ethnicity or appearance.

Watson Coleman is ranking member of Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security.