In the wake of a federal report highlighting the failures of the Transportation Security Administration’s behavior detection program, U.S. Representative John Mica (R-FL) has called for a reorganization of the TSA, which he called a “bloated, ineffective bureaucracy.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted the review of TSA’s behavior detection program, known as SPOT (“Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques”), at Mica’s request. The public version of the report (GAO-10-763) is available here.
“GAO’s report confirms that TSA has bungled the development and deployment of a potentially important layer of aviation security,” Mica claims. “Other countries, such as Israel, successfully employ behavior detection techniques at their airports, but the bloated, ineffective bureaucracy of TSA has produced another security failure for U.S. transportation systems. I have written to [Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano to express the need for the immediate reevaluation and reorganization of the TSA, an agency teetering on the verge of disaster.”
According to the GAO report, TSA spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on the SPOT program. TSA began pilot tests of SPOT in 2003, and began to significantly increase deployment of Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) in March 2007. Approximately 3,000 BDOs are now deployed to over 100 of 457 TSA-regulated U.S. airports. However, according to the GAO, TSA never scientifically validated the list of behaviors underpinning the program, never determined whether the techniques could be applied for counterterrorism or in an airport environment, and never conducted a cost-benefit analysis.
The program has also failed to identify known terrorists that have travelled through SPOT airports. Since the program’s inception, 17 known terrorists have traveled through eight SPOT airports on 23 different occasions. This includes Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square Bomber.
The GAO reports that between May 2004 and August 2008:
● 2 billion passengers went through SPOT airports
● 150,000 were selected for secondary screening
● 14,000 were referred to law enforcement
● 1,100 were arrested
● 0 were arrested for terrorism.
Mica has urged the development of a behavior detection program, based on the highly successful Israeli model utilized by EL Al Airlines. “Unfortunately, the TSA’s SPOT Program is not like the Israeli behavior detection model,” he notes. “Unlike the Israeli program, SPOT is conducted from a distance, with no personal interaction between the passenger and the TSA employee performing the SPOT screening unless the passenger is identified for secondary screening. El Al also trains all their staff in behavior detection techniques, not just the screening staff working the passenger checkpoints.”
According to Mica, earlier airport screening penetration tests demonstrated the TSA’s failure to detect threats, and he is seeking “a robust behavior detection program to address those failures. Unfortunately, penetration testing continues to show that even with new screening technology and the SPOT Program, the aviation screening system is not working.”
Mica characterizes the TSA as “a bureaucratic nightmare, with over 60,000 employees and top heavy with supervisory and administrative staff. At TSA headquarters, where 30 percent of employees are supervisors, the average salary is over $105,000. Thirteen percent of field employees are supervisors. This is a massive bureaucracy that cannot effectively ensure the safety of U.S. transportation systems, and something must be done to improve the agency’s performance.”