GAO Underlines Flaws in TSA’s Behavior Screening Program

Critics have argued that the stress and exhaustion that often go along with air travel are too easily mistaken as suspicious behavior. Others have complained that the program is nothing more than racial profiling.

Several lawmakers asked the witnesses whether the SPOT program involved profiling.

“I just don't think it's viable or doable. And I do believe that it is profiling,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J) noted a BDO manager at Newark Airport gave inappropriate directions to officers regarding profiling passengers and made racial comments before being fired.

“What degree of confidence do you have that other BDO managers are encouraging or directing racial profiling through the SPOT program?” he asked.

Pistole said TSA now requires that officers take a pledge against profiling and anybody who commits any of these violations will be investigated and “dealt with appropriately.”

“Any violation of somebody's civil rights or civil liberties is a significant issue for us and just undermines the entire program, so that's why we don't tolerate it,” he said.

Lord told the committee there were no indications of profiling. He said an investigation into allegations of racial profiling at Boston’s Logan International Airport found no evidence of such acts. He said, however, some of the officers interviewed noted there was in some cases profiling based on appearance.

Defenders of behavior detection programs point to other countries that have successfully implemented similar screening protocols, including a program employed by Israeli security services at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Lord said it is important to note there are as many differences as similarities between the two systems.

“First, you are allowed to racially profile under their system…that's prohibited under our system. Also, their system is much smaller in scale…one major international hub and the number of aircraft is less than a hundred in their national fleet,” he said. “They essentially will take the time and interview every single passenger getting on an aircraft. We can't do it under our system. The entire system would come screeching to a halt.”

The hearing also focused on the recent shooting at Los Angeles International Airport where Paul Ciancia allegedly shot and killed TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez and injured two others.

Pistole said agreements with local law enforcement on response times are being reviewed.

"Under the aviation security program that TSA has with the (330 largest) airports, there is an agreed upon response time which is typically five minutes," he said. "Clearly five minutes was too long in this case and that is something we are looking at as part of our review. "