SPOT-ted $900 Million, TSA Program Hasn’t Caught One Terrorist

By:  Michael Tennant
SPOT-ted $900 Million, TSA Program Hasn’t Caught One Terrorist

The amount spent by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) since 2007 on a program to identify suspicious airplane passengers: $900 million.

The number of terrorists arrested as a result of this expenditure: zero.

That is the inescapable conclusion of a General Accountability Office (GAO) study released in November and subsequent congressional testimony by GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, Stephen M. Lord.

In 2003, the TSA began testing its Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program, which, through the use of behavior detection officers (BDO), is “intended to identify high-risk passengers based on behavioral indicators that indicate mal-intent,” Lord told the House Transportation Security Subcommittee on November 14. Specifically, he explained,

Through the SPOT program, TSA’s BDOs are to identify passenger behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception and refer passengers meeting certain criteria for additional screening of their persons and carry-on baggage. During SPOT referral screening, if passengers exhibit additional behaviors, or if other events occur, such as the discovery of a suspected fraudulent document, BDOs are to refer these passengers to a law enforcement officer (LEO) for further investigation — known as a LEO referral — which could result in an arrest, among other outcomes.The TSA has spent approximately $900 million on SPOT since it was fully deployed in 2007, Lord said.

The latest GAO report on SPOT is a follow-up to a 2010 review in which the agency criticized the TSA for instituting the program without first determining if it had any scientific basis and without implementing any performance measurements to gauge its success.

The GAO reviewed “meta-analyses (studies that analyze other studies and synthesize their findings)” of over 400 behavior-detection studies from the last 60 years and concluded that “the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance,” Lord said.

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