U.S. Air Marshals: Innocent passengers "absolutely" tracked

- Innocent American citizens are "absolutely" being surveilled, according to current and former federal air marshals.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the focus has been on securing the skies. However, air marshals, are often monitoring innocent Americans instead of suspected terrorists. 

"Are the air marshals today tracking average American citizens who are doing nothing wrong?," asked FOX 46 investigator Matt Grant. 

"Absolutely," said retired air marshal Henry Preston. "100 percent."

Preston and Steve Theodoropoulos, a former air marshal turned whistleblower, spoke exclusively to FOX 46 about a top secret surveillance program they say has little to do with catching terrorists. 

"We'd be looking for yawning, whistling, wringing of hands," said Preston. "Even late to a flight."

Congress is now investigating the recently disclosed program "Quiet Skies" where air marshals are assigned to track and collect data on specific people who are often not suspected of a crime or on any terror watch list. The TSA, which runs the Federal Air Marshal Service, says its surveillance is based on suspicious travel patterns. 

However, Preston and Theodoropoulos, who have nearly 20 years combined experience working as air marshals, say innocent passengers have been secretly surveilled for more than a decade.

"We're stopping people that have done nothing," said Theodoropoulos. "And that should concern everybody."

Both say "Quiet Skies" grew out of a behavior detection program, which the TSA denies. However, according to sources and internal communications, air marshals have kept watch over passengers who exhibit the kind of behavior anyone might display inside the airport waiting for a flight:

  • Arrives very late for a flight
  • Exaggerated yawning as the passenger approaches the gate area
  • Whistling as the passenger approaches the gate area
  • Faster eye blink rate
  • Facial flushing when asked questions
  • Protruding or beating neck arteries
  • Repetitive touching of face
  • Rubbing on wringing of hands
  • Strong body odor 
  • Widely open staring eyes
  • Face pale from recent shaving of beard
  • Excessive fidgeting, clock watching, head turning, shuffling feet, leg shaking 

"The identifiers actually meet everyone's criteria walking through the door," said Preston. "I mean it's stupid if you look at it. Every single one of those identifiers everybody will meet at some point in time walking through an airport."

The examples are worrying, according to civil rights advocates. 

For example, FOX 46 has learned exclusively that as early as 2003:

  • Air marshals questioned and took a report on a military member at Charlotte Douglas International Airport because he was "chain smoking."
  • A report was taken on a man in Orlando because he had a "very strong" body odor and was "whistling for no apparent reason."
  • A woman was surveilled in Atlanta because she "arrived late to board a flight" and was "rubbing her hands together very agitated" and "cleared her throat."

In a statement the TSA defends its ongoing surveillance as a way to root out potential terrorists.

"'Ordinary, law abiding Americans' would not qualify for the [Quiet Skies] program," said TSA spokesman Thomas Kelly. "The program places relevance on identified travel patterns along with other analyzed information and does not consider race or religion. It also has robust oversight from legal, privacy and civil liberties experts, in addition to congressional oversight. As with any law enforcement agency, FAMS [Federal Air Marshal Service] does take note of suspicious activity within the aviation domain. The ability to identify suspicious behaviors before it manifests an attack is essential in disrupting or defeating an attack. Since 2010, the program adds another layer of security to aviation and is necessary in keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet."

At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where Preston says the behavior observation indicators have been used, passengers had strong opinions. 

"It doesn't seem right," said Catarina Nelson. "It seems rather funny."

"I think it's appalling," said Djuna McLeod ."I think that it's a form of discrimination and at some point it has to stop."

"People are tired when they're at the airport," said M'Shel Bowen. "They're cranky from going through TSA. That's not a good judge of what they're looking for."

"Whatever it takes to make everybody safe is what matters," said Tyler Simms. "I think safety must be the first concern."

But Theodoropoulos says this isn't making you safer. He says these surveillance tactics haven't led to the arrest of a single terrorist. The TSA would not comment on that.

"The program never turned out any terrorists," he said, walking through Charlotte Douglas International Airport. "They never were able to arrest anyone based on the bizarre checklist they had."

"It was excuses to generate statistics is what it was," said Preston.

Both say the Federal Air Marshal Service has been under pressure from Congress to justify its $1 billion budget. They also estimate that less than 100 flights a day are covered by air marshals out of tens of thousands of flights. 

"We're wasting resources," said Theodoropoulos. "There are legitimate threats out there and we're not following them. Why?"

Last year a Government Accountability Office report found the TSA "does not have information on its effectiveness" in preventing an attack, "nor does it have data on the deterrent effect resulting from any of its other aviation security countermeasures."

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