The Transportation Security Agency’s (“TSA”) Screening of Passengers Through Observation Techniques (“SPOT”) program, aimed at revealing potential security issues at airports, was roundly criticized by the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) in a report released Friday, November 15, 2013.  The report found that the results of the three year old program, employing approximately 3,000 “behavior detection officers” at 146 of the 450 TSA regulated U.S. airports are unvalidated, that the model used to confirm the program’s efficacy was flawed and inconclusive, and that the report used improper control data and methodology and, thus, lacks scientific proof that the program could identify potential assailants. 

The program’s critics include Steven Maland, a GAO Managing Director, Representative Benny Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House of Representative’s Homeland Security Committee, and the Chairman of that Committee, Michael McCall of Texas, all of whom take the position that “the proof is in the pudding.”  They cite the recent attack by a gunman at LAX during which TSA officers at the security checkpoint failed to push the panic button to alert local authorities, but instead used an abandoned landline, giving the gunman the opportunity of four minutes and 150 rounds of ammunition before he was stopped.

Given the $900 million total cost of the three year program, its critics believe that it should be more effective than other TSA efforts the failures of which have been documented by repeated government tests, including one by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in which TSA agents missed critical incursions by weapons of all types, including guns and knives in passenger carry-on bags.  However, even in the face of an extensive array of criticism, the TSA itself refuses to acknowledge the program’s deficiencies.  Inconceivably, the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents TSA workers, offers to solve the problem by giving TSA employees law enforcement responsibility, including the carrying of weapons and the power to arrest.  This is despite clear indications that TSA officers are not properly vetted on hiring, and not properly trained afterwards, as illustrated by the actions of the TSA employee at LAX last month who sent threatening messages to various airport representatives. 

In short, TSA needs to put its own house in order, and stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars on programs of questionable effect, when their existing programs are fraught with policy and personnel failures.  There is a fine line between the search for security and a useless interference with both the privacy of individual passengers specifically, and interstate commerce in general.  To date, TSA, with its long lines, ill-trained agents, and antiquated methods (e.g., limiting liquids to quart bags and forcing passengers to disrobe at checkpoints) has failed to find that balance.