The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has deployed a new weapon in the war to prevent terror from the skies – a 92-point checklist of behaviors to look out for when screening passengers for travel at our nation’s airports.
The checklist is formally known as the “Spot Referral Report” – an unclassified document that the TSA has tried to keep confidential but never the less found its way into the hands The Intercept, an online distributor of sensitive and classified documents inspired by the exploits of National Security Administration (NSA) leaker and fugitive, Edward Snowden.
The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT list “is part of TSA’s controversial program to identify potential terrorists based on behaviors that it thinks indicate stress or deception” according to The Intercept.
The checklist includes fairly common behaviors associated with air travel including fidgeting, whistling, sweaty palms, rigid posture, yawning, blinking, looking down, throat clearing and even complaining about the airport screening process.
The screening program involves specially trained officers called Behavior Detection Officers (BDO’s) who watch and interact with passengers going through the screening process. The BDO’s look for behaviors that indicate stress or deception.
For anyone who has ever been late for a flight or connection, it is not hard to imagine that they could set off these terrorist behavior tripwires – and some former TSA employees agree.
One former BDO manager, who asked not to be identified, told The Intercept that:
“SPOT indicators are used by law enforcement to justify pulling aside anyone officers find suspicious, rather than acting as an actual checklist for specific indicators.” “The SPOT sheet was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple ‘behaviors’ that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value”.
The former manager said the “signs of deception and fear “are ridiculous.” …“These are just ‘catch all’ behaviors to justify BDO interaction with a passenger. A license to harass.”…“The program is flawed and unnecessarily delays and harasses travelers.
A second former BDO Manager, who also asked not to be identified, echoed this criticism telling The Intercept that the program suffers from lack of science and inconsistency, with every airport training its officers differently. Quoting the blunt former BDO, “The SPOT program is bulls***t.”…“complete bull***t.”
An active duty TSA spokesperson declined to comment on SPOT documents obtained by The Intercept.
The Government Accounting Office (GAO) analyzed hundreds of scientific studies on detecting “guilty knowledge” behaviors and deception but concluded “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
Despite the science or lack thereof, the TSA has trained and deployed thousands of BDO’s at a cost of more than $900 million since the program began in 2007 according to the GAO.
Concerned that the STOP program may be a form of racial profiling, the ACLU filed a “Freedom of Information Act” request with the TSA last year and based on the documents produced filed a lawsuit this past week challenging the purpose, merits and outcomes of the program.