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Press Releases :: April 6, 2011

Subcommittee Democrats Explore Questions Behind TSA’s Behavioral-Based Security Screening Program

(Washington, DC)  -- Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to review the value and effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administrations (TSA’s) Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program.  The SPOT program relies on identifying specific nonverbal behavioral cues that are believed to be associated with stress, fear or anxiety, as a method of identifying individuals that may pose a security threat and warrant additional screening or interviewing by TSA’s Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs).  “But behavioral scientists do not agree on these non-verbal cues and they do not agree on whether terrorists would exhibit them,” said Ms. Donna F. Edwards, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

Ranking Member Edwards expressed her concern that neither BDOs nor law enforcement officers use the SPOT program to engage in racial or ethnic profiling.  “Terrorists have come in all colors, shapes and sizes,” said Edwards.  “If security personnel were fixated on a profiling approach to finding the next Mohammed Atta, then they would miss identifying the next John Walker Lindh, Timothy McVeigh or Richard Reid,” she said.  Ms. Edwards was equally concerned that the SPOT program be based on the best scientific and security information available.

“Too often we have relied on technology that is not adequately tested before it is deployed [and] is not based upon adequate scientific evidence of its effectiveness,” said Ms. Edwards in her opening statement.  The SPOT program currently costs more than $200 million per year and Ms. Edwards concluded that she does not believe that “$20 million, $20 dollars or $2 dollars more should be spent on the SPOT program” until some of the key questions about its reliability and effectiveness are adequately answered.

A study commissioned by DHS to help validate whether SPOT-trained BDOs do a better job in identifying those individuals TSA deems “high risk” than randomly selecting passengers was delivered to DHS but has not yet been shared with the Committee.  DHS claims the report shows that SPOT-trained BDOs were significantly more likely to identify high-risk travelers than random screenings. But the study was limited in scope and did not evaluate whether the methods used in the program are valid or whether the program overall is effective. 

The Subcommittee hearing included six witnesses.  But noticeably absent was a representative from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Both Chairman Broun and Ranking Member Edwards expressed their deep disappointment with TSA’s refusal to provide a witness at today’s hearing.  “It is hard to make the case that the SPOT program is working and worthy of continued Congressional funding and support when the agency that runs the program refuses to participate in our hearing,” said Edwards. “I hope that TSA will rethink their position.”

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