Terrorists Slip Past TSA's Scientifically Untested Behavioral Threat Detection Program

By Matthew Harwood

At least 17 suspected terrorists have evaded federal officers trained to spot suspicious behavior or signs of deception under an aviation security program the Government Accountability Office (GAO) describes as scientifically unreliable.

The GAO reports that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deployed the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program "without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment (.pdf)."

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, seized on the report as one more instance of TSA ineffectiveness and waste. In a letter addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano yesterday, Mica urged the secretary (.pdf)  "to initiate immediate efforts for the reevaluation and reorganization of the entire TSA, a bureaucracy that has ballooned in size and cost, and ... is teetering on the verge of disaster."

Rep. Mica also assailed the SPOT program's effectiveness, noting 17 suspected terrorists moved through eight SPOT airports on at least 24 different occasions. One of those suspected terrorists was the failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who made it onboard an Emirates flight to Dubai at New York City's JFK Airport earlier this month, despite being on the terrorist watchlist and passing through a security checkpoint where the SPOT program operates. Federal authorities arrested Shahzad onboard the flight before it could take off.

Currently, there are about 3,000 behavioral detection officers (BDOs) deployed at 161 of 457 TSA-regulated airports, which cost taxpayers about $212 million this year, according to the GAO. The White House has asked for $232 million next year to expand the SPOT program. If Congress agrees and maintains this funding level, the program would cost approximately $1.2 billion over the next five years.

Under the SPOT program, TSA trains BDOs to walk the airport security line and observe passengers waiting to reach the security checkpoint.  Usually working in teams of two, BDOs assess whether passengers are acting suspiciously and then score certain predetermined behaviors on a point system.

"For passengers exhibiting indicators above baseline conditions, the BDOs are to (mentally) add up the points assigned to each indicator they observe," the GAO reports. "Both BDO team members must agree that observed indicators have exceeded the predetermined numerical threshold," and if they do a passenger can be chosen to undergo secondary screening.

On average, BDOs have 30 seconds to observe passengers standing in the security line and make a determination whether they deserve secondary screening before they reach the checkpoint. Passengers that still provoke concern after secondary screening are referred to a law enforcement officer for further scrutiny, including a possible background check.


View Recent News (by day)


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.