We have an idea for reducing the federal deficit by about $200 million per year, in the blink of an eye: terminate the Transportation Security Administration's "SPOT" program.
SPOT is the program under which "Behavior Detection Officers" look for signs of "suspicious behavior" in airports, so that people can be referred for secondary screening. SPOT is one of those government programs with a name chosen to produce a clever acronym: Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.
Unfortunately, that is the only thing about this program that could be called a success.
As the Government Accountability Office noted in a recent report, there's no evidence that the program works or has ever worked.
With no cost-benefit analysis, it was selectively deployed at 161 airports that were not chosen on the basis of a comprehensive risk assessment, which is the GAO's way of saying it wasn't well thought out.
The TSA offered "anecdotal examples" of when the program nabbed undocumented immigrants and people who were otherwise wanted by law enforcement, but as the GAO said, "it cannot be determined if the anecdotal results cited by TSA were better than if passengers had been pulled aside at random."
More to the point, none of these people were terrorists. As the GAO put it, "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."
Over a four-year period ending in mid-2008, some 2 billion passengers checked in at the 161 SPOT airports, and the TSA's observers singled out 152,000 of them for secondary screening. Of those, only 14,000 were referred to law enforcement, suggesting that more than 90% of these "suspicious" persons should have been left alone.
Ultimately, the SPOT program led to 1,100 arrests over the four-year period, mostly for issues related to immigration or document fraud. But the GAO found no links to terrorism or any threats to aviation security in any of these cases.
Being fair and thorough, the GAO concluded that the TSA needs to revise the program so that its effectiveness can be accurately measured and assessed.
We think the GAO was being too kind.
Our beef with this program is not merely that it doesn't catch terrorists. What's worse is that the only thing it has ever done is to subject people to the scrutiny of law enforcement merely because they happened to be travelers.
There are ways to catch undesirables without burdening our airport security systems, taxpayers and travelers with anti-terrorism procedures of no known merit.
This column appeared in the May 31 issue of Travel Weekly.