- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2014

The government’s chief auditor has urged TSA to cut its behavior screening program, but the agency instead quietly expanded it last month on passengers at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

Under the “targeted conversation” checks, which began March 5 and will run through April 28 as part of a test, Transportation Security Administration officers try to strike up conversations with passengers and airport employees in an effort to snoop out would-be terrorists, according to documents obtained by Democrats in Congress.

But those Democrats said TSA’s behavior detection programs are a waste of money, have failed to screen out suspected terrorists and violate the rights of regular passengers.

Even worse, the lawmakers said, TSA officials may have misled members of Congress about how they would use the expanded checks.

“This [program] represents an intrusion into the privacy of the flying public through a process TSA has not scientifically validated,” the lawmakers said in a letter signed by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, joined by three other high-ranking Democrats.

The TSA didn’t respond to a request for comment late Thursday on the test program or the letter from Democrats.

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But in documents obtained by Congress, the TSA says the program has been well-received and that several passengers have praised the officers’ professionalism.

The TSA’s broad behavior program has been under fire since it was started in 2007.

A report last year from the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s chief auditor, said behavior detection is unproven and called the airport program a waste of money.

In the wake of that report, TSA chief John S. Pistole acknowledged to Congress that the program had not nabbed a single would-be terrorist.

But Mr. Pistole fought to preserve the program, saying behavior detection is an accepted practice at law enforcement agencies. If Congress prohibits behavior detection, he said, TSA agents will have to conduct more pat-downs and passengers will face longer security lines.

The original behavior program was designed to have officers watch for 94 signs of stress, fear or deception. Under the program being tested at BWI, officers are told to ask specific questions of passengers about their “trip story” and to ask airport employees about their “job function and airport credentials.”

“Questions are presented in a customer-friendly manner and not confrontational,” the TSA said in its documents.

The questions are secret, the lawmakers said.

Passengers who refuse to answer the questions are forced to go through secondary screening, the Democrats said.

The program was used on 873 passengers and 289 employees in the first two weeks of operation. The TSA said it will evaluate the results at the end of the test in April and decide on “future plans.”

Mr. Thompson said the original behavior program was sold to Congress as a way to speed up lines by clearing passengers and putting them through expedited screening.

Mr. Pistole told Congress last year that axing the program would mean longer lines.

“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.”

In their letter Thursday, the lawmakers said Mr. Pistole last year indicated that the behavior program was being used only “for exclusion purposes.”

“Given the lack of scientific validation that [behavior detection officers] are capable of detecting the presence of an individual who poses a threat to aviation security, it is unlikely that scientific validation exists to show that the use of the same methodology would enable BDOs to identify an individual who is a low risk and only requires minimal and expedited checkpoint screening,” they said.

In addition to Mr. Thompson, the letter was signed by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee; and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security transportation subcommittee.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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