Federal Perspective: Interview with Steve Lord

By Matthew Harwood

Initially, you were skeptical of TSA’s purchase of full body scanners. What has happened since then that has reduced your skepticism?

The good news is that TSA has embraced our recommendations related to that program. I can’t discuss them because they are classified, but the one area that we did declassify was related to the utilization of some body scanners that had been underused. We found that they could be used more effectively if redeployed. We visited 12 airports, and we noticed that some of the purchased machines weren’t being used at all. Some were effectively dark. The exact numbers are classified, but we alerted top TSA management and highlighted some opportunities to use some of the machines in terminals where there was a greater need. In response to our alert, TSA has agreed to reposition some of the equipment to make sure it’s used most effectively. That’s a good example of how the GAO can make things work better and save the American taxpayers some real money. This incident also underscores the importance of having our teams do field visits to see how things work in the real world outside Washington, D.C. We actually like to kick the tires, that is, we like to get out and visit airports.

Another TSA program that the GAO was very critical of was behavioral detection, or the SPOT program. Has the GAO’s opinion changed at all on the effectiveness of the behavioral detection program?

The central message of our 2010 report was that TSA deployed the program before it was fully validated. Usually an agency validates first and then deploys once the validity is proven. However, TSA deployed this program while it was still in the process of validating the concept that you can use behavior detection techniques on a stand-off basis to spot potential terrorists or what they deem to be high-risk individuals. Unfortunately, there is no clear scientific consensus that it is possible to apply these techniques on a large scale in the airport environment. As our report notes, law enforcement agencies and the Israelis apply these techniques on a much smaller scale. The Israelis also openly profile on the basis of race, sex, and national origin, which is a prohibited TSA practice. The good news on the behavioral detection program is that we made 11 recommendations to improve the program—it was soup to nuts, everything from validating to making sure that the officers had a better way to tap into the operations center to run people’s names past the watch list. TSA has embraced all of them and is making good progress in addressing them, although it could be many more months before these are completely addressed.

Is it on a more scientific footing?

We still have questions about that. They did respond to our recommendation and had a technical panel look at the program. They issued a study in April 2011, which was a good initial step, but as we recently reported, the technical advisory panel made some additional recommendations related to validation. We’re looking at that right now, and we’re going to be issuing a report on that in a few months. We still have some concerns about the scientific validity of behavioral detection.

What’s your assessment of TSA’s trusted traveler program, PreCheck?

I believe this is a move in the right direction since the “one size fits all” screening process is very inefficient, and it’s very difficult to implement. To his credit, TSA Administrator John Pistole is trying to think of ways to focus TSA screening resources more selectively and efficiently. TSA uses the phrase “risk-based” and the PreCheck program is a good example of how the agency can be more risk-based: screen the people you don’t know a lot about more intensely. The ones that don’t present much of a security threat—the young, senior citizens, members of the military, frequent fliers—can receive much less scrutiny.



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