GAO report: TSA’s behavior detection voodoo

by Charlie Leocha on May 21, 2010


In a report that should alarm taxpayers, GAO uncovers another Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program that has been implemented “before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers as potential threats in airports” or conducting a cost-benefit analysis.

In effect, TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program is a form of bureaucratic voodoo. TSA behavior detection officers’ (BDO) current behavior detection performance has no more validation than having TSA screeners wear masks and shake rattles at passengers.

As of March 2010, about 3,000 BDOs utilizing SPOT were deployed at 161 of 457 TSA-regulated airports. The annual cost is $211.9 million of aviation security funding. When all is said and done, it appears that over the years, more than half a billion dollars has been spent without a single terrorist suspect being apprehended.

This reluctance to display any effectiveness to the TSA programs seems to run through the entire program. When I had a chance to question Paul Leyh, the TSA director of the Secure Flight program, he would not even offer a single instance of a terrorist arrest during the period that TSA has been screening passenger names.

Readers can download the unclassified GAO report. Read it and weep.

Here are some tidbits from the GAO report. Note: These are official U.S. government report statements, not my own opinions.

We don’t know of the behavior detection system works. (Page 2)

A scientific consensus does not exist on whether behavior detection principles can be reliably used for counterterrorism purposes, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. According to TSA, no other large-scale security screening program based on behavioral indicators has ever been rigorously scientifically validated. DHS plans to review aspects of SPOT, such as whether the program is more effective at identifying threats than random screening. Nonetheless, DHS’s current plan to assess SPOT is not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify individuals in an airport environment who pose a security risk.

TSA is throwing money into a program that has displayed no cost-benefit for the program, however continues to expand the program. (Page 30)

TSA has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis, which could help the agency establish the value of the program relative to other layers of aviation security. Moreover, a cost-benefit analysis could also be useful considering recent program growth.

TSA has no way to asses the effectiveness of the program. They have not reported a single terrorism arrest since implementation of the program. (Page 43)

TSA … lacks the measures needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the SPOT program and, as a result, has not been able to fully assess SPOT’s contribution to improving aviation security. … The SPOT program uses teams to assess BDO proficiency, provide individual and team guidance, and address issues related to the interaction of BDOs with TSA checkpoint personnel. However, TSA does not systematically track the teams’ recommendations or the frequency of the teams’ airport visits.

Almost all domestic airlines now have a direct electronic link to the the Terrorist Screening Database through Secure Flight, but TSA still uses the phone. (Page 42)

… the Transportation Security Operations Center is not using all the resources at its disposal to support BDOs in verifying potential risks to the aviation system. This reduces the opportunities to “connect the dots” that would increase the chances of detecting terrorist attacks in their planning stage, which the SPOT Privacy Impact Assessment states is when they are the most vulnerable.

… TSA told us that the Operations Center does not have direct electronic access to the Terrorist Screening Database and must call the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center to provide it with a name to verify. TSA stated that this is done if a passenger’s identity could not be verified using the Operations Center databases.

TSA sends out standardization teams (inspectors) but has no system for tracking suggestions. (Page 52)

… standardization teams provide individual and team guidance to the BDOs, offer assistance in program management, and cover issues related to the interaction of BDOs with other TSA checkpoint personnel.

TSA reported to us that it does not systematically track the standardization teams’ recommendations or the frequency of the teams’ airport visits.

Title photo from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library. All charts from GAO report GAO-10-763.

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  • Hapgood

    So what changes will result from this GAO report? Almost certainly none, as usual. The TSA’s public relations department will put in some overtime coming up with appropriate mendacious smoke and mirrors to definitively spin it away. And that’s the last we’ll ever hear of it.

    I have reluctantly concluded that political realities make any meaningful reform of the TSA impossible. The GAO may have found BDOs and SPOT an ineffective waste of money, but nobody within either Homeland Security or Congress would even think of getting rid of it. Nobody wants to be blamed for “weakening security” when the next inevitable breach occurs. So the BDOs will remain just as they are, part of the continuing accretion of costly intrusive “layers” that become sacred cows even after they’re proved to be an ineffective waste of our money and time.

    The TSA is and will remain a rogue agency, operating under rules it makes up as it goes along, accountable to no one but themselves. The fear that someone will perceive any attempt to change what’s broken beyond repair as “weakening security” ensures that Congress will continue to give the TSA carte blanche to do whatever it wants, even if the GAO determines it’s a useless waste.

  • Hapgood

    Now that I’ve actually read the report, I have to (somewhat) temper my earlier remarks that were based on your excerpts. The report doesn’t quite conclude that SPOT and the BDOs are a useless waste of money, but I get the distinct impression that the author exercised great restraint in avoiding that specific statement.

    What the report does confirm is something we all pretty much knew. The TSA is a purely reactive and utterly inept bureaucracy that wastes a lot of our money and time trying to bamboozle us into believing that it’s doing something about terrorism. So if they find something that seems impressive, such as “Israeli-inspired” behavior profiling or full-body scanners, they’ll rush them into the checkpoints and spew forth glowing propaganda about how they’ve “enhanced security.”

    But they’ll rush ahead with these measures without validating the effectiveness of either the measures or the implementation. The implementation will be expedient and inept, such as omitting many features that make the Israeli behavior detection scheme effective. Or they’ll forge ahead with full-body scanners (and ignore the various concerns about them), though even the manufacturer admits it would not have stopped the underwear bomber.

    Worse, since the TSA operates behind a curtain of secrecy and are accountable to no one, they have no interest in even trying to validate the effectiveness of their measures. At least not until a courageous member of Congress sends the GAO behind the curtain, shines some light on what’s really going on, and embarrasses the TSA into defending itself. But since these GAO investigations are only one-time events, and the TSA has successfully evaded any sort of continuing systematic oversight, the corrective action they’ve promised the GAO will most likely never occur, or it will be completely ineffective.

    While Rep. Mica’s investigation is surely a good thing, it’s nothing more than political theater in the absence of systematic oversight of the TSA. The TSA gives us nothing more than very costly security theater, but apparently enough of us believe in it to preclude any meaningful reform.

  • Patriotic American

    Exactly what *is* a “terrorist” anyway?? Seems to me these people who call themselves “bankers” have unleashed more destruction on the lives of the American people than the cartoon characters hallucinated on Main Stream Media info-tainment. American is not Isreal and we will not be coopted into fear, hiding under the bed, and bearing false witness on our neighbors. God’s justice will find its way through the darkness, and the evil will be eventually brought into the light of judgement.

  • W W Woodward

    Can anybody say, “profiling”?

  • http://www.meetup.com/National-Boycott-of-Airline-Travel-2011/ Estelle Edwards

    Join the boycott until the TSA is disbanded and the Patriot Act repealed!

    http://www.meetup.com/National-Boycott-of-Airline-Travel-2011/

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  • Carml

    Washington has been tied in a knot for weeks about excess in government spending and once again TSA proves it is sorely lacking in any professional behaviors. 

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