Security Theater at its Purest: TSA and BDOs

This is old news -- the GAO report I'm about to mention came out two months ago and in some circles has already been discussed. But I had missed it until I saw a recent mention by Robert Poole, of Reason, on his Airport Policy Newsletter. (Here's a link to past issues; the one I'm about to quote from should be posted soon.) The GAO study really deserves more general-press and general-public discussion than it has received so far, because it illustrates an apparent new pointless extreme in security-theater thinking.

The GAO report is number 10-763, and its ungainly official title is, "Aviation Security: Efforts to Validate TSA's Passenger Screening Behavior Detection Program Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Validation and Address Operational Challenges." Summary page is here; full 89-page PDF of report is here; PDF of summary and highlights is here. The object of the study, requested by Rep. John Mica, a Republican of Florida, was the TSA's "BDO" program and its "SPOT" process. BDOs are Behavior Detection Officers, the uniformed TSA officials who are supposed to keep a quiet eye on passengers in airports to see who is behaving suspiciously. SPOT means Screening Passengers based on Observation Techniques. For (skeptical) background on the whole idea, see here and here. From the GAO report, here's the basic idea of the "SPOT" process --  click for larger:


And how has it worked out? Robert Poole has an accurate summary of what the GAO found after a prolonged investigation:

One of the most obvious questions is whether SPOT has spotted any terrorists. Out of 2 billion passengers boarding planes at SPOT airports, the BDOs took aside 152,000 people, and referred 14,000 to LEOs [Law Enforcement Officers], of whom 1,100 were arrested (0.7% of all SPOT referrals). And what were they arrested for? Well, 39% as illegal aliens, 19% for outstanding warrants, 15% for having phony documents, 12% for drug possession,12% other, 1% undeclared currency, and 1% "no reason given." Not a terrorist in the bunch. As GAO drolly puts it, "TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to the aviation system in any of these cases."

But wait--it gets worse. The GAO investigators also looked into the question the other way around. Of people who were nabbed as aviation terror subjects and who had passed through SPOT airports, how many were identified by BDOs? With help from Customs & Border Protection and the Justice Department, GAO reviewed the travel history of individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots uncovered by various agencies. At least 16 of those people moved through eight different SPOT airports, six of which were among the 10 highest-risk airports in TSA's current airport threat assessment. Those individuals "moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions." But there is no evidence that any of them were identified as suspicious by the BDOs at those airports.

Really, this can't go on. I mean, yes, I know it "can." But it shouldn't.