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GAO Underlines Flaws in TSA’s Behavior Screening Program

TSA chief argues against defunding: "I don't want to take away a layer of security that may identify the next putative terrorist."

Rodrigo Sermeño


November 18, 2013 - 12:21 am
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WASHINGTON – A House panel grilled the Transportation Security Administration’s top official about a screening program that a government watchdog report says has just a slightly better than random chance at identifying suspicious behavior.

The Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report recommends that Congress stop funding for the screening program, which has cost about $900 million since its launch in 2007, until it can provide scientific evidence that supports using behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who pose a threat to national security.

The TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program relies on training personnel to recognize indicators that can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.

The GAO report was released just as TSA officials testified before the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security on Thursday about whether the program was too expensive and of limited value, and whether it should continue for another three years.

Through the SPOT program, TSA officers are to identify passenger behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception and refer passengers meeting certain criteria for additional screening. The program involves TSA officers roaming airports looking for signs of people acting suspiciously.

The program fields an estimated 3,000 behavior detection officers (BDOs) at 176 of the more than 450 TSA-regulated airports in the United States. The TSA screens about 1.8 million passengers a day.

TSA Administrator John Pistole vigorously defended the program and called for a three-year expansion to iron out problems. He said defunding the program is not the answer.

“I know behavior protection works and so I’m a strong advocate because I don’t want to take away a layer of security that may identify the next putative terrorist who may decide they want to try to get into an airport here in the U.S. to do something bad,” he said.

BDOs also operate a program called “managed inclusion” which evaluates passengers at the checkpoints and allows some to enter faster “pre-check” lanes.

Pistole warned that if Congress defunded the program there would be an increase in pat downs, longer lines, and fewer passengers going through expedited screening.

Stephen M. Lord, GAO’s managing director of forensic audits and investigative service, said his agency reviewed 400 studies of behavior detection spanning 60 years and found out that the ability of humans to accurately identify deception based on behavior is “the same as chance or slightly better.”

He said the Department of Homeland Security’s validation study of the program had “several design limitations.”

“The TSA has limited information to evaluate this program,” Lord said. “They hope it works. But from the GAO’s point of view, the program should not be based on hope and faith.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) praised the program’s work, but said the current operation could be more effective and efficient.

“My concern with SPOT is that it doesn’t necessarily address threats emanating from overseas. It may not provide the deterrents we’re looking for. And I’m not fully convinced it increases safety in its current form,” he said.

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All Comments   (5)
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My personal "behavior screening program" flashes a red light every time I see a TSA drone feeling up an American citizen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That it's accepted in Israel but not so much in the US is not just related to the sensitive issue of "profiling", nor of the differences in scale. It's also the quality of the personnel.

Those working for airport security in Israel are I expect all military veterans. So they start with a soldier's instincts about his surroundings, and that his/her judgement can mean the difference between life and death. How many of TSA's cadres are military veterans, as opposed to diversity hires? Israel's interviewers are often college students or grads who studied behavioral psychology. How many of TSA's "behavior specialists" have any more than a week or two of behavior training? And yes, some elements of ethnic background do occasionally come into play, because Israel lives the reality while the politically correct live in fantasy land where none are more suspect than others... except maybe conservatives.

So it shouldn't surprise that TSA isn't more successful, because it doesn't get what makes the Israeli model work.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
“I just don’t think it’s viable or doable. And I do believe that it is profiling,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Another bit of wisdom from one of the leading intellectuals of the Congressional Black Caucus. Profiling beyond skin color may not be "viable or doable" for the TSA because of incompetent leadership, poor quality personnel and ineffective training.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
TSA might have started out as a means to enhance national security.

But like EVERY bureaucracy, it has become a self-fulfilling jobs program, that pays lip service only to its roots. And in the case of the TSA, it is now totally politicized.

What % of TSA workers do you think vote for the marxists?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
These tsz bozos are blithering idiots. There is only ONE way to catch terrorists. Namely, profile & interview just like the Israelis do period! Anything else is just urinating into the wind.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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