GAO Underlines Flaws in TSA’s Behavior Screening Program

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.