Air Marshals Secretly Followed an Artsy Virginia Mom on Flights to Make Sure She Wasn't Going to Destroy America

More details emerge on TSA's secret, suspicionless surveillance of certain American travelers.


TSA search
Gary C. Caskey/UPI/Newscom

Visit Turkey recently? If you have, air marshals may be snooping on you during your domestic travels.

Among the travelers followed under a secret Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program recently exposed by the Boston Globe were a professional basketball player and a social media manager for an arts and crafts company.

Neither of these women was actually suspected of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity. Nor, apparently, were thousands of others surveilled and trailed under the TSA's Quiet Skies program, which launched in 2012 and expanded significantly this year. But Courtney Vandersloot, the basketball player, and Taylor Usry, the social media manager, were tracked by air marshals and were subjected to heightened security screening, all because they had gone to Turkey.

The Boston Globe tracked down Usry in Williamsburg, Virginia. She wasn't spied on during her trip to Turkey, where she took some arts-and-crafts courses. It was when she returned that the surveillance began. In July she flew to Florida for work. Plainclothed air marshals followed her, kept track of everything she did, kept records of her behavior, and even rode on the flight with her down to Tampa to keep tabs on her.

That's creepy enough, but she was also subjected to very extensive hands-on screening and security pat-downs—intrusive enough that they made her cry, she tells the Boston Globe. She also had an encounter in line with a chatty, friendly man who asked her all sorts of questions that she now sees in a new light. (Her husband thought the man was flirting with her.) She was also selected for one last "random" bag check at the gate.

Vandersloot went to Turkey to play professional basketball there. She has a work visa to do so, and she says the U.S. government knows full well what her business in the country was. She even qualified in 2016 for a program that expedites travel clearances for people who are considered low risk. Nonetheless, she tells the Globe that she was singled out for extensive searches during her domestic trips.

Civil rights and privacy groups are up in arms. The secretive surveillance appears completely unattached to anything resembling risk or threat assessment: Essentially the program calls for suspicionless surveillance of Americans for the purpose of finding out whether they're a potential threat. Some air marshals themselves have criticized the program, not being enthusiastic about spending their time spying on people who are not under investigation for any actual wrongdoing.

But the TSA has defended the snooping and says it will continue, despite its intrusiveness, its ineffectiveness, and the fact that many of the people carrying it out think it's a waste of time.