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TSA chief defends controversial Quiet Skies surveillance program

TSA chief defends controversial Quiet Skies surveillance program
TSA Administrator David Pekoske, shown in November, says a program to track airline passengers helps protect travelers from terrorist attacks. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

At a gathering of corporate travel managers, the head of the Transportation Security Administration defended a once little-known program to target airline passengers whose travel patterns raise suspicions.

During an on-stage discussion before thousands of travel managers and in an interview, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said the program known as Quiet Skies helps protect airline travelers from terrorist attacks.

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The program, in which TSA agents and air marshals track passengers after they board U.S.-based airlines, made headlines last month when the Boston Globe first reported on it, prompting calls from civil rights groups and lawmakers for more information on the surveillance endeavour.

Despite complaints from some civil rights groups, Pekoske said the program continues to track passengers whose travel patterns raise red flags with the TSA.

“I think it’s still very important to add to in-flight security,” he said in an interview Monday about the program.

Pekoske also defended the program during an on-stage discussion before several thousand members of the Global Business Travel Assn. at their annual conference at the San Diego Convention Center.

The TSA chief said the agency has long required passengers whose travel patterns raise suspicions to undergo extra screening at airport security checkpoints. But he said the TSA recently began deploying federal air marshals to board the flights of those travelers who raise red flags.

“Essentially what it does is it allows us to look at the patterns of travel and, based on patterns of travel, assess ... what kind of risk that passenger might present,” he said in an interview.

Pekoske acknowledged that the media attention to the program has forced him to answer questions from lawmakers who had not been told about the operation. But he said Quiet Skies continues without changes.

“We have a lot of questions from lawmakers who had not been briefed,” Pekoske said.

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