Government investigators said Wednesday that there is little evidence to show TSA employees are able to pick out potential terrorists by profiling behavior and that the agency may be wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the 3,000 officers hired to do so.
The Government Accountability Office, which is Congress' chief watchdog, said it has reviewed all of the major research and said, at best, the Transportation Security Administration's behavior detection officers do only slightly better than random chance in singling out high-risk passengers.
The GAO recommended that TSA dramatically scale back the program until it can prove a real payoff.
"Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security, the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective," the investigators said.
TSA began the program in 2007 and by 2012 had deployed about 3,000 behavior detection officers to 176 airports throughout the country. It costs about $200 million a year to maintain the program.
The behavior officers are different from the transportation security officers, who screen passengers and luggage.
The officers are trained to watch for 94 signs of stress, fear or deception, but even some of the officers interviewed by investigators acknowledged that the indicators are subjective. Indeed, officers at some airports picked out potential high-risk passengers at far higher rates than other airports.
The GAO didn't release the names of the airports in the public version of its study.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the findings show it's time to scrap the behavior program altogether.
"TSA's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program is fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars," Mr. Thompson said.
TSA Administrator John S. Pistole is scheduled to appear before the Homeland Security Committee on Thursday to talk about the recent shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. Mr. Thompson said the agency chief will have to explain why he thinks the behavior money is well-spent.
In its official response to the report, TSA vehemently rejected the findings, arguing that behavior detection is an "accepted practice" within law enforcement and said it still should be part of their system.
Desperate to preserve the program, TSA defended the research and said its own study shows its officers are "substantially better at identifying high-risk passengers than a random screening protocol."
TSA said it is trying to improve its methodology by streamlining the list of behaviors targeted by officers and establishing metrics for the program's worth.
"The goal of the TSA behavior detection program is to identify individuals exhibiting behavior indicative of simple emotions (e.g. fear, stress) and re-route them to a higher level of screening," the agency said. "TSA's behavior detection approach does not attempt to specifically identify persons engaging in lying or terrorist acts."
GAO said research shows there could be value to studying behavior in connection with an interview, but that is not part of TSA's program.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said he still sees some value in behavior detection but that the GAO report's conclusions "are concerning."
"The terrorist threats to our aviation system require us to constantly re-evaluate and evolve our security procedures, and if this program isn't working, we need to find something that will," he said.
Some passengers have complained that the program amounts to racial or ethnic profiling, and TSA has tried to take steps to crack down on that. But of the 25 officers interviewed by investigators for the report, 20 percent said racial profiling was happening at their airports.
GAO investigators said the TSA doesn't collect enough data to determine whether profiling was occurring.
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