How To Spot a Terrorist, TSA Edition
Next time you travel, be careful not to complain about airport security.
Next time you go through airport security, do your best to avoid yawning, whistling, or complaining too much: Any of those behaviors could make you look like a terrorist in the eyes of a Transportation Security Administration screening agent, according to newly disclosed government documents.
A secret 92-point checklist, obtained and published Friday by The Intercept, reveals for the first time what kind of passenger behavior can merit a red flag for TSA agents responsible for pulling possible terrorists and criminals out of airport security lines.
The checklist reveals a step-by-step process for assessing whether passengers deserve additional scrutiny. Those deemed suspicious under "observation and behavior analysis" are pulled aside and searched for "unusual items" such as almanacs and prepaid calling cards. During the inspection, TSA agents are also instructed to look for "signs of deception," which can include a fast rate of eye-blinking.
Other suspicious signs listed include exaggerated yawning, gazing down, a pale face due to a recent beard shaving, widely open staring eyes, wearing of "improper attire," and arriving late for a flight.
The program, known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, has been in use nationwide since 2007 and has cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion dollars.
SPOT has been dogged with accusations that it is based on pseudoscience and promotes racial and ethnic profiling among the some 3,000 TSA agents tasked with observing unusual behavior. Two years ago, a review by the Government Accountability Office found no clear evidence that the protocol used by SPOT-trained agents to detect terrorists was any better than random selection. The GAO report recommended that Congress halt funding for the program.
Despite the scathing conclusions, however, the SPOT program has continued, and its screening checklist has been kept largely secret until now. Its backers say the program is an essential layer of TSA's multipronged airport security approach and expressly forbids any kind of discriminatory profiling.
In a statement, a TSA spokesman said the agency would not comment on or confirm the checklist published by The Intercept.
"Behavior-analysis techniques that have been successfully employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and internationally," the spokesman said. "No single behavior alone will cause a traveler to be referred to additional screening or will result in a call to a law enforcement officer."
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sued TSA for access to records related to the SPOT program's efficacy, which the agency has so far refused to hand over.
"What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling, and should be scrapped," said Hugh Handeyside, staff lawyer with the ACLU. "The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the agency can't hide the fact that there's no evidence the program works. The discriminatory racial profiling that SPOT has apparently led to only reinforces that the public needs to know more about how this program is used and with what consequences for Americans' rights."
The SPOT program has also in recent years attracted the scrutiny of lawmakers in both parties skeptical of its efficacy and concerned about the high price tag. In 2013, Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, extensively questioned former Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole at a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing about whether the SPOT program held any merit or was necessary given the other layers of airport security.
(Read more: Are We Downplaying the Risks of Homegrown Terrorism?)
"You go through a screening system which essentially undresses somebody, you send their equipment through radar detection and other devices," Sanford said. "The question is, from a civil-liberties standpoint, given those other tests, do you in addition have to go through a screening process based on somebody's interpretation of what might be in your brain?"
Pistole was resolute in his defense of the program, but conceded, "There's no perfect science, there's no perfect art of this." He told Sanford that the value in the SPOT program was difficult to measure, as it had only led to only a handful of arrests—none on terrorism charges—but that it aided in deterrence.
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