The TSA's program to let agents pick out people for closer screening based on the agents' observation fails to meet basic standards of training of objectivity, according to a report released Wednesday by the agency's auditor.
More than 3,000 Transportation Security Administration agents have been hired and authorized to conduct "behavioral detection," which involves watching or chatting up passengers and trying to pick out clues that would suggest they are security risks.
But the Homeland Security Department's inspector general said the agency is running the program without bothering to check to see if it is cost-effective, and without any sense that agents are exercising good judgment in deciding which travelers they screen.
"TSA cannot demonstrate that [officers] are screening passengers in a uniform manner to identify potentially high-risk individuals," the auditor said.
The inspector general recommended that TSA come up with a strategic plan; do a better job collecting data on who's getting screened; provide better training for officers and instructors; and figure out a way to assess whether instructors are doing a good job.
In fiscal 2011, more than 650 million passengers went through airports, and the behavioral detection program referred 2,214 of them to law enforcement, producing 199 arrests for outstanding warrants, suspected drug possession or being illegal immigrants.
In his official response to the audit, TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said the agency has completed a strategic plan, but it accepted most of the auditor's recommendations and has finished or is working on completing the changes.
"TSA believes that passengers at U.S. airports are screened ... in an objective manner; [the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program] is effective and has been validated and determined to identify substantially more high-risk travelers than a random screening protocol and the program is executed in an efficient manner," Mr. Pistole said.
TSA said the behavior program adds a needed layer of security to airport checks, saying that the behavioral cues their officers look for have been honed through decades of research and experience by other law enforcement branches.
The agency said the program is nine times more likely to identify a high-risk traveler than random screening.
The audit report came on the same day that TSA officials announced they were abandoning a plan to allow passengers to carry small knives, souvenir bats, golf clubs and other sports equipment onto planes in the face of fierce congressional and industry opposition, the head of the agency said Wednesday.
Last month, 145 House members signed a letter to Mr. Pistole urging him not to ease the ban, and a coalition of major airlines also opposed the policy change.
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