Report questions objectiveness, cost-efficiency of TSA's behavior detection program

A recently released report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has called the Transportation Security Administration’s behavioral detection program, also known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT, into question. The program is intended to identify potential high-risk passengers through behavioral indicators, but according to the 41-page report, the TSA has failed to implement a strategic plan to ensure its’ success.

"An agency’s strategic plan is a valuable tool for communicating a common vision to managers, employees, partners, Congress, and the public. Above all, it should be used to align resources and guide decision making to accomplish priorities and improve outcomes," the report said. "TSA did not (1) assess the effectiveness of the SPOT program, (2) have a comprehensive training program, (3) ensure outreach to its partners, or (4) have a financial plan."

Consequently, the report found that the TSA cannot prove that travelers are being screened objectively, that it is cost-effective or justify its expansion. As of Sept. 30, 2012, the report said that an estimated $878 million had been spent on the SPOT program since its inception in the 2007 fiscal year and that it currently employs more than 2,800 full-time positions.    

When the TSA first implemented the program, the agency authorized the use of 644 behavior detection officers (BDOs) in 42 airports. As of fiscal year 2012, however more than 3,000 BDOs were authorized for deployments to 176 airports, according to the report.

In a statement, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that he would be introducting an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill to stop funding for the SPOT program. 

"The inspector general's audit of the SPOT program deals yet another blow to TSA’s efforts to implement a behavioral detection screening program. Because of TSA’s failures in setting up the program, TSA cannot assure the American people that this program objectively determines whether an individual constitutes a risk," Thompson said. "After five years, approximately one billion dollars spent, a history of racial profiling allegations, and a lack of measurable results – this report makes it clear that the SPOT program has not improved aviation security and has wasted taxpayer dollars that could have been spent on proven safety measures."

This is not the first time that the behavior detection program has come under fire. In 2008, shortly after the launch of the SPOT program, it drew criticism over the fact that that it led to few arrests and complaints that too many innocent people were being stopped. Last summer, the agency said that it was retraining some of its workers after allegations of profiling surfaced.

The inspector general’s office made six recommendations to improve the effectives of the SPOT program including:

  1. Creating a comprehensive strategic plan for SPOT.
  2. Implementing controls to ensure completeness, accuracy, authorization, and validity of referral data entered into the Performance Measurement Information System.
  3. Developing a plan that provides recurrent training to BDO instructors and BDOs.
  4. Assessing BDO instructor performance in required core competencies on a regular basis.
  5. Monitoring and tracking the use of BDOs for non-spot related duties to ensure they are used in a cost-effective manner.
  6. Developing a process for identifying and addressing issues that may directly affect the success of the SPOT program, such as the selection, allocation, and performance of BDOs.