Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Federal Air Marshals: Innocent Actions Are Now Suspicious

You don’t have to do something “suspicious” on an airplane to end up on a government watch list. You don’t even have to be a peace activist, or be named David Nelson. All you have to do is … nothing.

KMGH-TV in Denver (LINK) is reporting that federal air marshals are putting airline passengers on watch lists who have done nothing remotely suspicious. Why? To meet a quota.

The US Federal Air Marshal Service denies such a quota exists. However, an official memo dated July 2004 states clearly that each federal air marshal is expected to generate at least one Surveillance Detection Report (SDR) per month. In addition, another July 2004 memo states, “There may come an occasion when you just don't see anything out of the ordinary for a month at a time, but I'm sure that if you are looking for it, you'll see something.”

In other words, there is no genuine threat to our nation’s air safety. So make shit up.

Dana Brown, director of the Air Marshal Service, excuses the memo by pointing to another one, dated a month later, that states there is no quota and that SDRs should not be “inaccurate or frivolous.” However, in actual practice, anonymous air marshals say, the quota remains in effect and the failure to meet it can prevent a marshal from receiving promotions, raises, and bonuses. As a result, marshals are spotting innocent behaviors in passengers and exaggerating them to make them seem suspicious. SDRs are then filed on these passengers, causing them to be entered into a secret government database of potential terrorists.

Here’s how it works:

A federal air marshal (we’ll call him Joe Jackboot) is sitting on a plane. It is the last day of the month. Joe has not seen one suspicious thing occur on a plane all month long. He is desperate to meet his quota. If he does not, he will not receive a badly needed raise. So what does he do? He looks around the cabin and sees a man—a tourist—taking a picture of the Las Vegas skyline as the plane takes off. Perfectly legal behavior, nothing unusual about it at all, but it’s suspicious enough for Joe and will help him get his raise. With a sigh of relief, he files an SDR on the man.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. This actually happened, and it is not an isolated case. According to the whistleblowers, this sort of thing happens all the time. And it can have potentially serious consequences for the persons placed on the watch list.

For instance, the man used by Joe Jackboot to meet his quota may find that, from now on, every time he flies he will be detained by airport security, interrogated, and subjected to intensive searches. And if he should complain about this treatment, or do anything other than grovel before security personnel, well—you’ve read the horror stories, you know what will happen: He will be lucky if he is only held over night. He could easily end up in federal prison for making terrorist threats—such threats, of course, being whatever airport security says they are. And he will never know why it happened. He will never know that it all started with Joe Jackboot’s quota.

So far, the government has done nothing to stop the quota. No surprise. In a police state, the government does not care if you are innocent, because no one is innocent. Everyone is under suspicion in a police state, therefore everyone belongs in the database. That is why innocent actions are now considered suspicious …