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Critics and GAO agree: TSA's observational screening is bunk

The Transportation Security Agency has a tough job when it comes to airline passenger screening, doesn’t it? Not only must it screen every passenger getting ready to board a commercial airliner, it must focus additional scrutiny on any passengers who appear suspicious. And, like any U.S. law enforcement agency, the Constitution requires them to define “suspicious” in a way that isn’t based on irrational and/or illegal criteria like race, ethnicity or ethnic appearance.

To accomplish its goals while avoiding unconstitutional racial profiling, about a decade ago the TSA put together a program it calls “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques,” or SPOT. Some 3,000 full-time "behavior detection officers" work in the program, which TSA Administrator John Pistoles insists is similar to behavior-based programs in other countries.

Yet, according to a recent lawsuit brought by the ACLU, both passengers and behavior detection officers have complained that SPOT results in a predictable cross-section of passengers being subjected to heightened scrutiny: Those of Middle Eastern appearance, African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities.

Furthermore, the civil rights group couldn’t find a single recorded incident in which SPOT techniques resulted in the apprehension of anyone later found to pose a security threat.

Is the TSA’s SPOT program just racial profiling in disguise?

That’s one thing the ACLU would like to know. Last October, it filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking specific information about the scientific basis for the program and who really ends up being subjected to it.

The ACLU isn’t the only group concerned about the validity of the program, either:

  • The science journal Nature couldn’t find any peer-reviewed studies showing that the techniques are effective.
  • A 2013 Congressional audit by the Government Accountability Office resulted in the recommendation that the "TSA should limit future funding for behavior detection activities." The ACLU estimates that more than $1 billion has been spent on SPOT since 2007.
  • ACLU experts found the SPOT program "discriminatory, ineffective, pseudo-scientific, and wasteful of taxpayer money."

The ACLU insists the SPOT records it is seeking are "vital to the public's understanding of whether the TSA can effectively use such techniques to screen for threats to aviation security." The TSA has received the FOIA request but isn’t willing to expedite it, and Pistoles continues to defend the program.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “TSA Asked to Divulge Screening Techniques," Adam Klasfeld, March 19, 2015

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