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TSA Behavior Detection Called Flawed, Not Worth Money

Photographer: Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The behavior-detection program involves Transportation Security Administration officers roaming airports looking for signs of people acting suspiciously and, at some locations, questioning passengers waiting in checkpoint lines. Close

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Photographer: Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The behavior-detection program involves Transportation Security Administration officers roaming airports looking for signs of people acting suspiciously and, at some locations, questioning passengers waiting in checkpoint lines.

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.

“My concern with SPOT is that it doesn’t address the threats emanating from overseas,” said Representative Richard Hudson, chairman of the House transportation security subcommittee, referring the program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique.

“It doesn’t provide deterrence, and I’m not convinced it really makes us safer in its current form,” Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, said at a hearing today after the GAO report was released.

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.

Pistole Defense

TSA Administrator John Pistole, the FBI’s second-highest ranking official before joining TSA in 2010, said he’s confident SPOT is an effective deterrent.

“I know behavior detection works,” Pistole said at the hearing. “I don’t want to take a layer away that may identify the next terrorist.”

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.

Few Arrests

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.

In questioning at today’s hearing, Pistole said to his knowledge a terrorist hasn’t entered a U.S. airport or airplane since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

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 in its response to the watchdog report. 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 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 today’s House hearing on the behavior-detection program and the agency’s responses to the Nov. 1 shooting of a TSA officer at Los Angeles International Airport.

Pistole said since the shooting, TSA has worked with local law enforcement agencies to make police more visible in airports. The agency has met with aviation-industry groups to review airport security, he said.

One item under discussion is TSA’s five-minute standard for law enforcement agencies to respond to an emergency, Pistole said. Police were on the scene at LAX in four minutes, he said, and a shooter who wanted to inflict mass casualties could have killed a lot more people than the one who died in Los Angeles.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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