TSA’s $200M Spot a Terrorist Program Never Caught One?

Metal detectors at an airportImage via Wikipedia

CBS News’ Armen Keteyian reports that “Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was arrested after he boarded a plane headed for Dubai, though the government is spending millions each year on a program that’s supposed to spot terrorists before they reach the gate.[…] There’s a hidden layer of airport security most people don’t know about. It’s called “behavior detection,” and involves specially trained Transportation Security Administration employees whose primary mission is to spot terrorists. They look for unique facial expressions and body language that may identify a potential threat. About 3,000 of these officers work at 161 U.S. airports — costing taxpayers nearly $200 million in 2009. This year, the TSA asked Congress for $20 million more to expand the program. But CBS News has learned that the program is failing to catch terrorists. It’s never even caught one.”

Also that “The GAO uncovered at least 16 individuals later accused of involvement in terrorist plots flew 23 different times through U.S. airports since 2004. Yet none were stopped by TSA behavior detection officers working at those airports.”

So that would be $220M and change? No terrorists were caught with $200M spent in this program; you think $20M more would do the job?

We went digging for that GAO report and finally found it available online today.

Quick excerpts below:

To enhance aviation security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began initial testing in October 2003 of its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) carry out SPOT’s mission to identify persons who pose a risk to aviation security by focusing on behavioral and appearance indicators. GAO was asked to review the SPOT program. GAO analyzed (1) the extent to which TSA validated the SPOT program before deployment, (2) implementation challenges, and (3) the extent to which TSA measures SPOT’s effect on aviation security. GAO analyzed TSA documents, such as strategic plans and operating procedures; interviewed agency personnel and subject matter experts; and visited 15 SPOT airports, among other things. Although the results from these visits are not generalizable, they provided insights into SPOT operations.
Beginning in fiscal year 2007, TSA created separate Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) positions as part of the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program.1 According to TSA, the SPOT program is a derivative of other behavioral analysis programs that have been successfully employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the United States and around the world, particularly that of Israel’s airline, El Al.
As of March 2010, TSA deployed about 3,000 BDOs at an annual cost of about $212 million; this force increased almost fifteen-fold between March 2007 and July 2009. BDOs have been selectively deployed to 161 of the 457 TSA-regulated airports in the United States at which passengers and their property are subject to TSA-mandated screening procedures.5 The administration has requested $232 million for SPOT for fiscal year 2011, a $20.2 million (9.5 percent) increase over the current funding level. This increase would support a workforce increase from about 3,000 to 3,350 BDOs. If this funding request is approved and maintained, SPOT would cost about $1.2 billion over the next 5 years.
Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is in the process of validating some aspects of the SPOT program, TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment. 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.

So — what do you need to do to become a BDO or a Behavior Detection Officer? Here’s what GAO says:

BDO eligibility is restricted to TSOs with at least 12 months of TSO experience, or others with related security experience. Applicants must apply and be accepted into the BDO training program. The training includes 4 days of classroom courses, followed by 3 days of on-the-job training. Expert BDOs […] received an additional week of training on SPOT behaviors and mentoring skills.

We’re pinning our $200M and hopes on catching the bad guys on folks with 7-days training?  I’m starting to get a headache, sorry.

So how many terrorists have been caught?  I know you want to know that. Here’s what GAO says:

Using CBP and Department of Justice information, we examined the travel of key individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots that have been uncovered by law enforcement agencies. We determined that at least 16 of the individuals allegedly involved in these plots moved through 8 different airports where the SPOT program had been implemented. Six of the 8 airports were among the 10 highest risk airports, as rated by TSA in its Current Airport Threat Assessment. In total, these individuals moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions.
SPOT officials told the GAO 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.

GAO tried to help TSA on this by suggesting that studying airport video recordings of the behaviors exhibited by persons waiting in line and moving through airport checkpoints and who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses could provide insights about behaviors that may be common among terrorists or could demonstrate that terrorists do not generally display any identifying behaviors. 

The GAO report says:

TSA officials agreed that examining video recordings of individuals who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses, as they used the aviation system to travel to overseas locations allegedly to receive terrorist training or to execute attacks, may help inform the SPOT program’s identification of behavioral indicators.

I don’t know about you.  But I’m thinking — does TSA really need GAO to suggest this, given that it is in the business of behavior detection?

As to the requested bump on that program money — the fear factor is always there, of course. I can understand that.  I, myself am afraid that TSA will get its additional $20M to expand the program simply because none of our elected representatives would like to go down in history as the one who shut down a program that is set up to net some real bad guys. But, would it be asking too much for Congress to tell TSA to bring in some verifiable results and not just anecdotal evidence before they write the next check?

I actually had a similar experience. One time, I was convinced that a giant rat was nesting in my attic. I called the exterminator and he put down his traps and promised to check back regularly. At $150 every three months. 6 months went. Nothing. Now, had I kept the contract for 3 years despite an empty trap, would you have called me prudent, or dumb?

Here are some trick questions: Does the fact that the trap has never netted the giant rat means that the rat doesn’t exist? Does it simply mean, that the rat just has not been caught? Or could it be that a mouse trap was the most inefficient means of catching that giant rat?

I did think of that exterminator and his traps when I read this report today.         

I do not care so much about the  money since I have none. But as a taxpayer, it seems wasteful to give more money to some program that has zero results. In the meantime, I think of the 1 in 4 kids that go to bed hungry at night. Not at some distant third world country. But right here.  In the United States of America. In 2007, 12.4 million children in the United States were hungry. Now, that number has grown to nearly 17 million kids.  Let’s think about that for a moment when we think of that $20 million.

Related Item:
GAO-10-763 | AVIATION SECURITY: Efforts to Validate TSA’s Passenger Screening Behavior Detection Program Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Validation and Address Operational Challenges | PDF