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.

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. "