Policy: National Security

GAO calls TSA behavior detection including chatdowns waste

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U.S. Transportation Security Administration efforts costing $200 million a year to spot potential terrorists by observing behavior are ineffective and lawmakers should limit funding, the Government Accountability Office said.

TSA’s techniques couldn’t be validated in a review of 400 studies of behavior detection spanning 60 years, the GAO said. A review of the program’s referrals and resulting arrests -- none of them related to terrorism -- showed it’s barely more effective than chance, the GAO said.

The program “is fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars,” Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the House Homeland Security Committee’s senior Democrat, said in a statement reacting to the report released today.

The GAO’s finding follows a Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report last year that said the program wasn’t objective and TSA couldn’t assess its effectiveness. The agency has spent about $900 million on the program since 2007, according to the GAO report.

The program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, involves TSA officers roaming airports looking for signs of people acting suspiciously.

At some locations, officers question passengers waiting in checkpoint lines, a practice that’s been derisively referred to as chatdowns. The agency has been accused by civil liberties groups of using racial profiling in targeting travelers for extra screening.

TSA officials rebutted the report’s conclusions and repeated previous denials about racial profiling.

94 Indicators

Just 0.6 percent of 61,000 travelers selected by SPOT officers for added screening at 49 airports in the past two years were arrested by law enforcement, the report found. The most common charges were possessing fraudulent documents and being in the U.S. illegally.

The TSA needs to get away from screening all travelers for objects, Stephen Lord, a managing director with the GAO, said in an interview. The question is whether the SPOT program is the way to do that.

Other law-enforcement agencies use intuition or carefully structured interviews, simplifying officers’ techniques, while the TSA uses a scoring system with 94 indicators, Lord said. Its officers typically spend 30 seconds or less scanning travelers waiting in line.

“They need to streamline the program,” Lord said. “It’s too complicated.”

TSA Response

The GAO used faulty data and methods to evaluate the SPOT program, TSA said. The program remains at the core of its strategy to move toward targeting passengers more likely to present a risk, it said.

“Significantly limiting funding would have a detrimental impact on TSA’s goal of expedited risk-based passenger screening,” Jim Crumpacker, DHS’s liaison with GAO, said in the agency’s official response.

Behavior detection has been an accepted practice for many years in law enforcement, customs and border protection, defense and security in the U.S. and internationally, Crumpacker said.

Because SPOT is part of a multipronged strategy, “to disrupt one piece of the multilayered approach may have an adverse impact on other pieces,” Crumpacker said.

The agency released the report ahead of a House transportation security subcommittee hearing scheduled for tomorrow on the behavior-detection program and the agency’s responses to the Nov. 1 shooting of a TSA officer at Los Angeles International Airport.

TSA Administrator John Pistole will have to answer questions tomorrow about why the agency’s money shouldn’t be spent instead on other “proven and effective measures to enhance aviation security,” Thompson said.

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