An inspector general's report released today found that the TSA had failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of a nationwide behavior detection program that was misused by some managers and screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport to engage in racial profiling.
The report did not address the racial profiling in Newark, which took place in 2008 and 2009 and is now the subject of a separate, ongoing inspector general's probe after being reported in The Star-Ledger
Rather, today's IG report focused on the lack of evidence that -- despite a total expenditure $878 million from 2007 through September 2012 -- the program really works, even when used properly. Therefore, the report found, an expansion of the program beyond its 2,800 employees at 176 airports cannot be justified. The report was compiled by the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA's parent agency.
"For example," the report states, "TSA did not (1) assess the effectiveness of the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, (2) have a comprehensive training program, (3) ensure outreach to its partners, or (4) have a financial plan."
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12 Dist.) and U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10th Dist.) were among congressional critics of the program who seized on the inspector general's findings.
"TSA has wasted over a billion dollars and precious resources on a program that has done nothing to detect potential terrorist activity."
"TSA has wasted over a billion dollars and precious resources on a program that has done nothing to detect potential terrorist activity, and instead, has actually encouraged shameless racial profiling," U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. Particularly with sequestration-related budget cuts in place, Payne said the money would be better spent upgrading baggage screening technology and stationing more screeners at checkpoints.
The probe was requested by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, and a frequent critic of the TSA.
Today's report recommended that the TSA develop and implement: "a comprehensive strategic plan" for the program; controls to assure the validity of referral data; recurrent training for BDOs and their instructors; plans to assess instructor
performance, cost-efficiency of BDO use, and selection of screeners as BDOs.
The TSA issued a statement pledging to abide by the IG report while standing by the SPOT program..
"TSA concurs with the six recommendations by the OIG, and has either addressed or is in the process of addressing all of them." the statement read. "Behavior analyses techniques add an additional layer of security measures that begins prior to arriving at the checkpoint."
The IG report was the second TSA-related headline of the day, along with an announcement by the agency that it had reversed an earlier decision and would not permit small knives and sporting goods as carry-on items.
The behavior detection program, known by its acronym, SPOT, was implemented by the TSA in 2007 as invisible layer of passenger screening in addition to the document checking, X-ray technology, mandatory removal of shoes and jackets, and random pat-downs in widespread use at the time.
Behavior detection officers, or BDO's, are specifically trained to spot behaviors such as sweating, fidgeting, avoidance of eye-contact, and other indicators of potential threats among passengers. BDOs may be stationed at checkpoints, as document checkers or other types of screeners, or elsewhere in airline terminals, to observe unsuspecting passengers. When a BDO observes a sufficiently suspicious behavior, the passenger is flagged for secondary screening. If a tangible violation of some sort is detected, the passenger is referred to a law enforcement agency.
However, a 2010 analyses by the Government Accountability Office of SPOT-related law enforcement referrals nationwide found that 40 percent were based on expired or otherwise invalid immigration documents, without accompanying indications of a terror threat.
While critical of SPOT-related abuses, Holt conceded that behavior detection can be and effective, "if done right."
But in Newark, an internal TSA document obtained by The Star-Ledger and reported in 2011 found that some behavior detection manages and officers had singled out Hispanic passengers for document checks in the belief that many would be in violation, resulting in a large number of referrals and the appearance that the SPOT program was productive. The document said suspicious behaviors were then invented by the corrupt BDOs, nicknamed "the Great Mexican Hunters," to justify the document checks.
Subsequent allegations of similar activity at Boston's Logan International Airport were reported by The New York Times, and both episodes are the subject of another investigation by the inspector general.