Between the hustle and bustle of making flights and grabbing bags, Transportation Security Administration officials are searching for the subtle. They're trying to spot small, nearly undetectable signs that a traveler may be up to no good.
"That would be a good layer of security if they're trained to pick up on agitation," Houston traveler Deborah Johnson said.
According to reports from the Government Accountability Office, the TSA has spent $800 million tax dollars on a program called SPOT. The acronym stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques. Essentially, agents are trained to look for facial expressions and body language that could indicate whether a person may be a threat. Specifically, it's a program to help root out potential terrorists trying to get on a plane.
"It's $800 million for people-watching," said U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi), who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security. "We still don't know if it's effective."
Farenthold's statement comes after TSA instituted the program in 161 of the United States' airports. The TSA began testing SPOT at Boston's Logan International Airport in 2003 before rolling out the program nationwide in fiscal year 2007.
Two years ago, Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, criticized the TSA for implementing the program without first verifying whether it would work in the high-volume world of an airport.
"TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment," the GAO's Stephen Lord wrote in a report presented to Congressional leaders in May 2010.
That same report also noted, "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 eight different airports where the SPOT program had been implemented. In total, these individuals moved through SPOT airports on 23 different occasions."
Flash forward to 2012, and GAO officials testified the TSA still hasn't fully validated whether this program works. The Department of Homeland Security did conduct a validation study after the GAO issued its 2010 report and determined SPOT was "more effective than random screening." However, Lord told Committee members during a March 2012 hearing the DHS's study "was an initial validation step and was not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify individuals in an airport environment who pose a security risk."
"I don't think the TSA has been able to point to it being worth the $800 million we spent on it," said Farenthold.
However, in a written statement to Local 2 Investigates, TSA officials wrote, "The deterrent value of the program can't be overstated. SPOT adds another layer of security to the airport environment and presents the terrorists with yet one more challenge they need to overcome in attempt to defeat our security system." Adding, "TSA's SPOT program is supported by the scientific research conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Mark Frank (Professor of Communication, University of Buffalo), leading authorities in the field of behavioral science. Their work has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, DHS Science and Technology and DOD. The SPOT Program also includes the research work of Dr. David Givens of the Center for Non Verbal Studies. These scientists are regularly asked to train members of the law enforcement community as well as most of the US Intelligence Agencies and the FBI. They have reviewed the SPOT program and support its scientific validity."
In regards to the validation study mentioned by Lord during his remarks to the Committee this year, TSA responded, "The Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) completed a research program to examine the validity of the SPOT Referral Report in the context of checkpoint screening. This detailed examination of the validity of a national security program screening instrument is the first evaluation of its kind. This research examined the extent to which using the SPOT Referral Report and its indicators leads to correct screening decisions at the security checkpoint. This study represents the most thorough analyses of behavioral screening programs to date, rendering SPOT the only scientifically validated behavior-based security screening program in the world. To date, no other counter-terrorism or similar security program is known to have been subjected to such a rigorous, systematic evaluation of its screening accuracy."
When Local 2 asked whether SPOT has led to the arrest of any suspected terrorists, TSA officials wrote, "TSA cannot be specific about whether the agency has caught actual terrorists. Many of the cases that resulted in arrests remain under active investigation by law enforcement. We may not know if the people SPOT caught in the country illegally, conducting airport surveillance, using fake passports/IDs or smuggling money or drugs were doing so to assist with a larger plot. But it's clearly an effective means of identifying people engaged in activity that may threaten the security of the passengers and the airports and has become a very effective intelligence tool, enabling law enforcement to bust larger operations and track any trends in nefarious activity."
When Local 2 spoke via phone with Lord regarding TSA's response he said, "The debate is not over in my mind, as to the methodology and effectiveness of this program."
Lord said the GAO is continuing to investigate the SPOT program and another report is due out next year. Farenthold said one of his main criticisms of the program is that TSA agents do not engage travelers in casual conversations, which he said he believes would increase the chances of spotting unusual behavior.
"They actually have a conversation with you and ask you some questions," said Farenthold.
Farenthold said he conducted an experiment of his own and said he was able to board a plane at the Corpus Christi airport without saying a single word to any TSA agent.
"You can get on an airplane without uttering a single word," Farenthold said.
In 2011, the TSA noted it began testing a program at Boston and Detroit airports to have agents engage passengers in casual conversation as they enter the screening area.
TSA officials said currently 2,800 behavioral detection officers have been put in place at 161 airports. TSA officials said for the SPOT program each BDO receives four days of classroom training and 24 hours of on-the-job training in an airport environment. TSA officials also note training is ongoing and BDOs are required to recertify each year.
The TSA plans to continue expanding the program, but Farenthold said that is not a guarantee.
"One of the things we are looking at in the Government Oversight and Reform Committee is whether or not this is worth it and whether or not we're going to recommend the program get de-funded," said Farenthold.
Currently the TSA is also looking into allegations of racial profiling by BDOs at Boston's Logan International airport.
"Regarding the profiling allegations at BOS, TSA's behavior detection program is a critical part of our approach to securing travel, but profiling passengers on any basis is simply not tolerated. Profiling is not only discriminatory; it is also an ineffective way to identify someone intent on doing harm. Officers are trained and audited to look for observable behaviors and behaviors alone. TSA cannot comment further due to the ongoing DHS IG investigation," TSA officials wrote.
Local 2 spoke with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee who is a senior member of the Committee on Homeland Security and chairs the subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection.
"We should not loose sight of the work being done by the TSA. Air travel is the number one target for terrorists and TSA is the first line of defense in keeping air travelers safe," said Lee. "While I understand questioning missteps, TSA is employing new technology and techniques to stay ahead of the terrorists. The tremendous work done by the TSA in preventing another attack should not be overshadowed."