Yawning, complaining, whistling, arrogance, throat clearing or looking disheveled are all things that could cause an unsuspecting air traveler to be pegged as a potential terrorist by Transportation Security Administration agents, according to confidential documents made public Friday.
The Intercept, which obtained the TSA documents, reported that TSA employees use a checklist and scoring system to identify potential terrorists through a process called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT.
The TSA employs specially trained Behavior Detection Officers to screen crowds in the nation’s airports in search of individuals acting in ways that indicate “stress or deception.”
The agents check their observations against a 92-point checklist divided into categories that assign different point values to different behaviors or characteristics.
For instance, “stress” factors like an “obvious ‘Adam’s Apple’ jump” when directed to a screening area, late arrival, “exaggerated yawning” or “sweaty palms” can add one point to a travelers’ terrorist potential. A “cold penetrating stare,” being dressed similarly to another traveler, “widely open staring eyes” or a “powerful grip” of luggage are among a list of several “fear” factors worth two points on the checklist. Three points are given for “deception” factors such as obviously wearing a disguise, appearing confused or failing to respond to “authoritative commands.”
TSA officers may also deduct points. Men over 65 and women over 55 years of age have one point deducted and members of families or married couples over 55 get two points scratched from their final tally.
Once the tally is complete agents refer travelers with more than four points for additional screening. Those whose tally more than six points are reported to law enforcement.
The SPOT program, which has been used by the TSA since 2007 at a taxpayer cost of about $1 billion, has been routinely criticized as being ineffective and based on pseudoscience.
The Government Accountability Office reviewed the program in 2013 and recommended that Congress halt SPOT funding after concluding that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
At the time, GAO director of homeland security and justice Stephen Lord told members of Congress that the costly detection program hadn’t foiled a single terror plot since its inception. It had however, led to a few arrests for minor crimes at airports.
“Of the approximately 61,000 SPOT referrals made during fiscal years 2011 and 2012 at the 49 airports we analyzed, approximately 8,700 (13.6 percent) resulted in a referral to LEO,” Lord said during his testimony. “Of the SPOT referrals that resulted in a LEO referral, 365 resulted in an arrest.”
Other critics have argued that SPOT encourages racial profiling at the nation’s airports.
Despite widespread criticism, the TSA’s SPOT program remains in used today.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the TSA for records on the SPOT program.
“What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling, and should be scrapped,” said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “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.”
Following The Intercept’s publication of its SPOT documents, the TSA defended the costly screening program in a statement.
“Terrorists have used a variety of items and ways to attempt to inflict harm to aircraft — everything from shoes to liquids — but consistent across all methods of attack is the malicious intent of the actor,” TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
“Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach used by law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world, that focuses on those behavioral indicators, rather than items, and when used in combination with other security layers helps mitigate a variety of threats.”