Airport security program designed to spot terrorists questioned

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Congressional leaders received an update on a costly government program designed to spot potential terrorists or criminals moving through our nation's airports.

Thursday's hearing before a Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation addressed many of the same concerns raised in a Local 2 Investigates report from September of 2012.

"TSA chose, and you know they're free to choose, a strategy which I deem higher risk," testified Stephen Lord with the Government Accountability Office.

Lord's testimony was in response to the effectiveness of a Transportation Security Administration termed SPOT. The acronym stands for Screening Passengers by Observation Technique. The program trains TSA agents to watch passengers for subtle facial expressions or body language that could indicate criminal intent. The program was first initiated in 2007 and so far cost taxpayers $900 million.

"I don't want to take away a layer of security that may identify the next punitive terrorist who may decide they want to get into an airport," said TSA Administrator John Pistole. "I know behavioral protection works, and so I'm a strong advocate."

However, officials with Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, reported to the subcommittee that SPOT has still not proven effective.

"We are recommending the TSA limit future funding of the program," said Lord.

One of the main criticisms that has plagued the program was that TSA implemented SPOT without fully vetting its effectiveness.

"They rolled it out on almost national basis without verifying its effectiveness in test airports," US Representative Blake Farenthold told Local 2 in September 2012.

Congressional leaders are now deciding whether to continue funding the program.

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