TSA Failed At Least 23 Times to Detect Subsequent Terror Suspects as They Boarded Planes in U.S., Says GAO

April 6, 2011 - 4:07 PM

Transportation Security Administration

A TSA checkpoint at Lindbergh Field in San Diego, Calif. (AP photo/Eduardo Contreras, San Diego Union Tribune)

(CNSNews.com) - Stephen M. Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, told the House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight today that the Transportation Security Administration failed on at least 23 occasions to stop subsequent terror suspects who boarded planes at U.S. airports.

Lord’s testimony presented the subcommittee with analysis of the TSA’s “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques” program, which goes by the acronym SPOT. Under SPOT, TSA agents known as Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) attempt to detect potential terrorists at airports by observing their behavior.

The Department of Homeland Security, TSA’s parent agency, began pilot-testing the SPOT program at several New England airports in 2003 and 2004,  expanded it to 42 airports in 2006 and 2007, and now uses it at 161 airports, according to previous congressional testimony by Lord. The program cost $211.9 million in fiscal 2010 and the administration would like $232 million for the program this year, Lord told the subcommittee today.

According to Lord, at least 16 different people who were later charged or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses were able to slip through 8 different U.S. airports where TSA had been employing the SPOT program. These 16 terrorists evaded detection at these airports a total of 23 times.

“Using CBP and Department of Justice information, we examined the travel of key individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots that have been uncovered by law enforcement agencies,” Lord said in written testimony presented to the committee. “We determined that at least 16 of the individuals allegedly involved in these plots moved through 8 different airports where the SPOT program had been implemented.

“Six of the 8 airports were among the 10 highest-risk airports, as rated by TSA in its Current Airport Threat Assessment,” Lord testified. “In total, these individuals moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions. For example, according to Department of Justice documents, in December 2007 an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Somali terrorists boarded a plane at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport en route to Somalia. Similarly, in August 2008, an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to al Qaeda boarded a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport en route to Pakistan to receive terrorist training to support his efforts to attack the New York subway system.”

Under the SPOT program, the TSA’s Behavior Detection Officers are supposed to pick out possible terrorists from the crowds boarding planes by watching the way people act and appear.

“TSA designed SPOT to provide behavior detection officers (BDO) with a means of identifying persons who may pose a potential security risk at TSA-regulated airports by focusing on behaviors and appearances that deviate from an established baseline and that may be indicative of stress, fear, or deception,” Lord testified.

The program was in part based on the security procedures used by the Israeli airline, El Al. However, Lord told the committee that TSA’s SPOT program differs in “substantive ways” from El Al’s program.

“Although SPOT is based in some respects on El Al’s aviation security program, El Al’s processes differ in substantive ways from those used by the SPOT program,” Lord said in a footnote to his written testimony. “In particular, El Al does not use a list of specific behaviors with numerical values for each, or a numerical threshold to determine whether to question a passenger; rather, El Al security officers utilize behavioral indicators as a basis for interviewing all passengers boarding El Al passenger aircraft, and access relevant intelligence databases, when deemed appropriate. According to these officials, El Al also permits what is termed ‘profiling,’ in which passengers may be singled out for further questioning based on their nationality, ethnicity, religion, appearance, or other descriptive characteristics, but these are not the only bases on which a passenger may be questioned.”

TSA also uses watch lists maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), a division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in screening passengers trying to board airplanes.