How Not to Catch A Terrorist

Screeners are capturing bad guys, but not the ones they wanted | “They’re like, I’m going to nail this person”

Jeff Plungis, John Hughes, and Frederic Tomesco


By now, many travelers have come to realize that officers from the Transportation Security Administration aren’t just confiscating their liquids and occasionally patting them down. They’re also sizing up passengers for signs of suspicious behavior, such as excess anxiety or sweating. Known as the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or Spot, the program was put in place to nab terrorists and is now used at roughly a third of U.S. airports. After nine years, government studies show that it’s turned out to be an effective tool for sniffing out alleged criminals — just not the ones it was intended to catch. So amid criticism from civil liberties advocates, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has brought in consultants to revisit the program.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there’s no evidence that Spot has caught a single terrorist. Of 353 arrests from November 2010 to April 2012, 68 percent were for immigration offenses, drug charges, or outstanding criminal warrants. (TSA agents can’t make arrests; they refer suspects to law enforcement.) From 2004 through 2008, according to the GAO, none of the 1,083 arrests resulting from TSA referrals resulted in terrorism charges.

Critics of Spot argue racial profiling of black and Hispanic travelers is fueling the arrests. Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Massachusetts chapter, says 30 TSA workers at Boston’s Logan airport filed complaints with the TSA in August, alleging that profiling was causing minorities to be pulled aside for extra questioning. Wunsch says agents believe they need to seek out illegal immigrants or people with criminal warrants to boost arrests and show they’re doing their job. “What seems to have happened is they were acting on stereotypes and prejudices,” says Wunsch. “They’re like, I’m going to nail this person, they’re more likely to have [an outstanding] warrant.”

David Castelveter, a spokesman for DHS, said in a statement that officers only question people based on behavior, “not race or ethnicity.” The agency says it doesn’t keep demographic data on those who get extra screening, and officials won’t describe exactly how they measure the program’s success. But deputy administrator John Halinski says the agency will now change the benchmarks so airport managers won’t think they have to meet quotas for enforcement actions unrelated to terrorism.

GAO officials nonetheless say Spot needs to be simplified. Stephen Lord, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, says agents scan security lines looking for a “very complicated set of behaviors.” They’re supposed to mentally assign points to signs of stress or fear, and then pull people aside if the points exceed certain thresholds — all in a matter of seconds. It’s not clear to the GAO that the TSA has adequately vetted the program, particularly at the scale it’s being used, says Lord.

“Nothing we’re doing in the aviation environment is simply for the heck of it,” says Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “It’s being done in response and to deal with ever-evolving threats.” The department’s inspector general is investigating the Boston officers’ complaints. In the meantime, the TSA is requiring the 3,000 agents using Spot to attend two hours of training on why racial profiling isn’t an effective security tool. Managers and officers in Boston will get four hours.

The bottom line Almost three-quarters of arrests initiated by TSA officers from 2010 to 2012 were for outstanding warrants, immigration offenses, or drugs.


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