WASHINGTON, DC (FOX 46 WJZY) - The head of the TSA faced tough questions on Capitol Hill Wednesday over its recently disclosed secret surveillance program known as "Quiet Skies."
"The American public does deserve to know the extent to which they are being surveilled," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
The Massachusetts senator grilled TSA Administrator David Pekoske at a Senate oversight hearing. Pekoske testified "thousands" of Americans, who aren't suspected of any crime, or on any watch list, have been secretly surveilled under the Quiet Skies program since 2011 based on suspicious travel patterns - with little to show in return.
"I don't believe anybody has been arrested or prosecuted," said Pekoske.
Quiet Skies has also not foiled any threats, he testified.
Still, Pekoske says the surveillance measures act as a deterrent to an attack. As part of that, the TSA boss says air marshals keep a close watch on seemingly innocent behavior.
"Does the TSA monitor whether Americans go to the bathroom during flights?," asked Markey.
"Yes," Pekoske said eventually.
"Does the TSA monitor what Americans eat or drink on a flight?," asked Markey.
"I would not use the term 'monitor,'" said Pekoske. "We observe."
"Does the TSA follow Americans after they have deplaned and are walking to their car or taxi?," asked Markey.
"Yes," said Pekoske.
"Again we are talking about Americans who aren't on any watch list and aren't suspected of any crimes," said Markey.
At the beginning of the hearing, Pekoske defended Quiet Skies as an "intelligence-driven, risk-based rules program" with "strong oversight."
"I am confident that it has reduced risk for nearly seven years," he said. "I would state unequivocally we have the best Air Marshal Service in the world. Our air marshals are a critical element of aviation security"
Many details of the program and the intelligence that supports it is classified, Pekoske said, who offered to brief the senators in private.
Markey's Twitter account re-tweeted FOX 46 during the hearing and, at one point, he appeared to reference our reports.
"Air marshals have recently come forward and voiced doubts about the Quiet Skies program," said Markey. "Which, they say, saps their ability to do more vital law enforcement work."
The senate oversight hearing comes three weeks after current and former air marshals told FOX 46 that Quiet Skies is a "waste."
"I think I'm being paid to generate statistics," a current air marshal told FOX 46. "So that my agency can go to Congress and have statistics."
The TSA says it does store data on Americans, with no evidence or suspicion that they have done anything wrong, for two years. The data isn't deleted, Pekoske testified, because they need to "see a certain number of encounters."
"Without knowing more the program appears to be a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and an infringement on our privacy," said Markey, who questioned whether the program is Constitutional. "This is a vast program that takes Americans and puts them into a suspect category."
"And, so far, there is no evidence that it has produced anything that would enhance the safety of the American flying public," Markey added. "From my perspective, it is something you should seriously reconsider because, to me, it just does look like a huge waste of taxpayer dollars."
Pekoske says the White House is not involved in Quiet Skies.
"People that are selected for Quiet Skies, based on patterns of travel, in our view, informed by intelligence, represent more risk than other passengers do," said Pekoske.
"It just seems to me that they have a right to the presumption of innocence," said Markey.