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Friday June 07, 2013

TSA Profiling and the SPOT Program

Posted by Yasmine Taeb at 3:44 pm

This week, the House of Representatives was voting on the 2014 appropriations bill (H.R. 2217) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Aside from some of the problematic immigration language that unfortunately made it in the final bill, namely an amendment from Steve King (R-IA) that blocks funding to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and calls to return to deporting DREAMers,  there’s also funding for various departmental programs that give rise to racial profiling.

One such program is the Transportation Administration Agency’s (TSA) Screening Passengers by Observation program – more commonly referred to as SPOT. In 2003, TSA began operationally testing behavioral techniques to screen air passengers that eventually evolved into the SPOT program in 2007. As of FY2012, more than 3,000 behavior detection officers (BDOs) have been deployed to 176 US airports to look for preselected facial expressions, body language, and appearances that the program lists as suspicious. The problem with the program is that there is in fact no evidence that the program works. And yet DHS has increased the program’s budget from $198 million in fiscal year 2009 to a requested $227 million in fiscal year 2013, a 15 percent increase over 5 years. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), at least 16 alleged terrorists moved through eight different SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions without being pulled out of line by BDOs for closer inspection.

There have been a number of profiling allegations, namely allegations of racial and ethnic profiling: in June 2011, allegations of profiling surfaced in Newark Liberty International Airport; in November 2011, there were allegations that TSA BDOs were targeting Mexican travelers for extra screening in Honolulu; and in August 2012, the “Assessor Screening Technique” implemented at Boston Logan Airport led to more than 30 federal officers filing complaints of racial profiling.   

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), a longtime critic of the SPOT program, has called for its termination. In fact, the DHS’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) report that was obtained earlier this week by the NYT was requested by Rep. Thompson. The OIG report concluded that the SPOT program does not have a strategic or financial plan although it has been in operation for more than five years. Upon release of the report, Rep. Thompson, Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security Committee, introduced an amendment to the 2014 DHS appropriations bill to defund the program. Although the amendment failed, we applaud Rep. Thompson’s efforts in calling for the termination of the SPOT program.

In response to the OIG report and recent Congressional action, AAI sent a letter to Secretary Napolitano calling for the termination of the SPOT program. “Beyond SPOT’s cost and inefficacy, we are deeply troubled by its embrace of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling as a way to identify potential terrorists,” wrote AAI Executive Director Maya Berry.    

The program was deployed without being validated scientifically, has not identified a single terrorist at an airport where the program has been implemented, has been criticized by opponents as racially profiling travelers, and has squandered nearly 1 billion dollars.

“By embittering minority travelers, TSA and DHS endanger the work both agencies have done to forge effective relationships with potential allies like the Arab American Community,” wrote Berry.  

Tagged as Issues, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Profiling

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