GAO questions effectiveness of terrorist-spotting techniques

By Michael Fabey

Spotting the terrorist is proving to be harder to do than the Transportation Security Administration officials thought it would be.

The TSA's billion-dollar Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) effort has proven to be a costly experiment in how not to develop and deploy an anti-terrorist aviation program, says a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The TSA fielded a program that was only half-baked, the GAO said, with no way to prove SPOT's effectiveness.

"TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment," the GAO said in a report released last week.

"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," the GAO noted.

The GAO says the TSA should employ an independent panel of experts to help validate the program. TSA also needs to enhance SPOT data collection and analysis, fully utilize agency resources to identify possible threats, and establish a plan to better gauge SPOT's effectiveness.

The Homeland Security Department agreed with the recommendations, and the TSA acknowledged it deployed SPOT in 2004 at select airports before "a scientific validation of the program was completed" because the agency needed to immediately address potential threats to aviation security that could penetrate the other existing security layers.

The TSA also says there's no scientific validation that SPOT-based techniques work, and the agency says its program is unique because of a new point system the TSA developed for its agents to identify potential terrorists.

In the estimated 30 seconds that TSA SPOT-trained agents have to observe passengers waiting in security-screening lines, they tally a certain number of points based on a person's appearance and behavior. Once a suspect gets so many points, they are signaled out for more screening. If they continue to accumulate points, they are turned over to law enforcement officers.

SPOT-trained security agents are trained "to look for and recognize facial expressions, body language, and appearance that indicate the possibility that an individual is engaged in some form of deception and fears discovery," the GAO noted.

"Behavior detection and analysis are the central focus of SPOT. Officials from other agencies stated that their field personnel incorporate behavior detection as one of many skills used in their work," added the GAO.

All of that training, and SPOT implementation, doesn't come cheap. The SPOT program has an estimated projected cost of about $1.2 billion over the next five years, or about a fifth of what the government devoted for all passenger- and property-screening programs in fiscal year 2009.

As of March, SPOT had been deployed at 161 of 457 TSA-regulated airports.

Even with the high cost, there's no proof that the program accomplishes its main goal -- to spot terrorists.

The TSA says about 2 billion passengers have boarded aircraft at airports were SPOT agents are deployed. SPOT agents tagged about 152,000 of those passengers for secondary screening .Of those, 14,000 were handed over to law enforcement officers, resulting in 1,100 arrests.

Illegal aliens, outstanding warrants and fraudulent documents accounted for about 72% of those cases where arrests were made.

But there's nothing that indicates that any those referred for more intense screening were potential terrorists or meant any harm to aircraft or other passengers, the GAO said

"SPOT officials told us that it is not known if the SPOT program has ever resulted in the arrest of anyone who is a terrorist, or who was planning to engage in terrorist-related activity," said the GAO.

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