The Transportation Security Administration can’t ensure that its behavior-detection program is objective or cost-effective, according to a watchdog report released Wednesday.
TSA’s program, Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), which now has 2,800 workers, began in 2007 and has so far cost $878 million. The program’s goal is to spot potential terrorists through behavioral clues, but it has been criticized for possible racial profiling.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general said in a 41-page report released Wednesday that the TSA doesn’t effectively assess the program or have a comprehensive training program.
“As a result, TSA cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective or reasonably justify the program’s expansion,” according to the report from Anne Richards, assistant inspector general for audits.
In a written reply to the inspector general’s report, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the agency was working to deal with the concerns before the audit began and that no significant concerns remain.
TSA finalized a mission statement, goals and objectives for the program in December 2012 after auditors visited, he said. The agency also finalized performance measurements in November 2012, he said.
“TSA believes the passengers at U.S. airports are screened by (behavior-detection officers) in an objective manner,” Pistole said. The program “is effective and has been validated and determined to identify substantially more high-risk travelers than a random screening protocol.”
But Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, who requested the audit, said the report deals another blow to the TSA’s efforts to detect suspicious behavior. He said he would offer an amendment this week to the department’s spending bill to prevent more funding for the “failed and misguided effort.”
“After five years, approximately $1 billion spent, a history of racial profiling allegations and a lack of measurable results â€” this report makes it clear that the SPOT program has not improved aviation security and has wasted taxpayer dollars that could have been spent on proven safety measures,” Thompson said.
The TSA program grew out of techniques developed at Boston’s Logan Airport with Massachusetts state police. The program now primarily has behavior-detection officers chat with passengers waiting in security lines, and then referring any exhibiting suspicious behavior for secondary screening or to law enforcement officers.
TSA doesn’t reveal what suspicious behavior will trigger additional screening. But security experts say shifty eyes and sweating are among the traits that raise suspicions.
From October 2011 through September 2012, the program resulted in 199 arrests, typically for outstanding warrants, suspected drugs and immigration status.
But the inspector general reviewed 110,000 referral records from 2009 through 2012 and found 7,019 that didn’t identify the officer involved, 1,194 that didn’t meet the criteria for a referral and 143 that didn’t contain an airport code for where the referral was made.
“As a result, TSA cannot ensure that training contributes to the uniform screening of passengers,” the inspector general report said.
TSA began in May a year-long process to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the referral reports. That followed a January move to provide refresher training for all behavior-detection officers by the end of the year.
TSA said in a statement that studies involving outside researchers found that these officers were nine times more likely to identify a high-risk traveler than random selections for more screening.
“TSA’s behavior detection program is a critical part of our approach to securing travel,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday. “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques allows officers to identify specific behavior clues that have been proven through research, science and decades of law enforcement experience to be reliable indicators and predictors of anomalous or suspicious behavior.”
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today.