TSA Spent $878 Million on Screening Program That Probably Doesn't Work

There's no evidence to suggest officers can reliably spot a threat by scanning the behavior of people in a crowd. 
More
Reuters

The Transportation Security Administration has spent almost $900 million dollars since 2007 on a program to scan crowds for signs that someone is a terrorist. The Government Accountability Office reviewed the program. Their finding: Congress ought to shut it down, because there's no evidence that the tactic works. 

The Washington Post reports:

Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security, said the GAO report confirmed that the program “is fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars.” The TSA defended the program Wednesday. 

“Behavior detection is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect, and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation,” the TSA said in statement responding to the report. “Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach used by law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world.” 

The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program employs 2,800 TSA personnel. 

A bit more context:

Behavior-detection officers work in pairs at airport checkpoints, using an evaluation system of behaviors that suggest that someone should be scrutinized. The TSA workers may ask a police officer to talk with the passenger. If that doesn’t resolve the concerns, the person may not be permitted to pass through to the boarding area. During a one-year period ending in September 2012, TSA records show that 37,370 passengers were targeted under the SPOT program, 2,214 were referred to a police officer and 199 were arrested. 

Some civil-libertarian critics of the program believe that it also leads to racial profiling. It is conceivable to me that highly trained, highly intelligent security officers could spot a threat with behavioral cues and without racial profiling. But the notion that such a rare and demanding expertise could be scaled up to an organization as large as the TSA, with employees as poorly compensated, beggars belief.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In