The TSA's behavior-profiling program at airports has been in effect for seven years, but has yet to identify any potential terrorists who pose a threat to aviation, the agency's administrator acknowledged Thursday.
Still, John S. Pistole, chief of the Transportation Security Administration, said that if Congress halts the program, he will have to order his agents to do more pat-downs and lines at airports will get longer.
Mr. Pistole is fighting to preserve the profiling program, run by Behavior Detection Officers, or BDOs, in the face of a new government-watchdog report that says the research shows officers are little better than random chance in picking out potentially dangerous passengers.
The Government Accountability Office recommended cutting funding — and that proposal has the support of a number of members of Congress, who said the $200 million a year spent on profiling could be better spent elsewhere.
Mr. Pistole disagreed with the research and said cutting the program will force him to put more passengers through stiff screenings.
"Defunding the program is not the answer," he said. "If we did that, if Congress did that, what I can envision is, there would be fewer passengers going through expedited screening, there would be increased pat-downs, there would be longer lines and there would be more frustration by the traveling public."
A union that represents TSA workers also pleaded for the jobs to be saved.
"We shouldn't be focused on ending the BDO program. Currently, it is the only program we have, and it's done a good job," American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. told reporters. "Is it perfect? No, but let's not trash the program when it can be improved."
Mr. Pistole acknowledged that the BDO program hasn't detected any would-be terrorists, and that most of the people that end up being referred all the way to law enforcement are illegal immigrants, drug traffickers or those with outstanding arrest warrants.
Mr. Pistole said the lack of any terrorist apprehensions doesn't signal anything because there hasn't been a successful terrorist attempt to board an aircraft from within the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.
"This has been over seven years, and we have screened by observation over 4 billion passengers. It actually comes out to less than 50 cents — in some instances, 25 cents per passenger is the cost for BDOs to observe," he said.
But critics said that given the lack of catching any terrorists, the math could be viewed the other way.
"Or you could say it in the reverse. You could say a billion dollars with no result," said Rep. Mark Sanford, South Carolina Republican.
The BDO program is separate from the screenings of luggage and passengers performed by security officers.
BDOs are trained to look for 94 different telltale behaviors that could signal a dangerous intent. But the GAO review said officers interpret the behavioral cues differently, making it subjective.
In fact, during their review of a month of operations, the GAO found some officers never referred a single passenger for a secondary screening.
Mr. Pistole said that, in part, because of behavior profiling, TSA is able to let more people go through expedited physical screening. Expedited screening still involves going through a metal detector and having luggage scanned, but it doesn't put passengers through the more time-consuming full-body scans.
Mr. Pistole said someone with an underwear bomb or with a surgically implanted explosive could still get through the full screening, which is why the profiling program is still needed.
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