Posted by Kristin McCarthy on August 04, 2015 in Blog
There has been no shortage of news scoops on the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) embarrassments. Whether failing to catch arms smugglers, being caught in a scheme to sexually harass travelers during the screening process, or allowing a small child to fly without a ticket, the TSA is decidedly under fire.
Newly appointed TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger appeared before the House Committee on Homeland Security last week to answer some tough questions. The Committee pressed Neffenger on his plans to overhaul TSA’s techniques, which sport a disconcerting 4% success rate in identifying suspicious passengers and a 10% success rate in identifying explosives in passenger belongings. The department’s failures were laid bare in June when a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that TSA agents failed 67 of 70 security tests. Following the hearing Neffenger announced plans to take some of these astonishing failures head-on by retraining thousands of TSA’s employees to better screen passengers.
Neffenger’s leadership on TSA reform is needed, there is no doubt that all forms of mass transportation are prime targets for those looking to carry out violence or exploit airports and train station security lapses to transport arms and drugs. But when it came to the less sensational but equally problematic behavioral screening techniques, known as SPOT, or, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, Neffenger was not able to articulate a plan – or even an opinion on the program. Responding to the committee’s ranking member Rep. Benny Thompson’s (D, MS-2) request for the supporting science behind SPOT’s logic, Neffenger only reported that he has no stance on the program and is awaiting the TSA’s report on it.
Since SPOT was first adopted from the Israeli model in 2011 and given $1billion to fund, AAI has consistently advocated against the program because it legitimizes profiling techniques that rely on the subjective perception of TSA officers – a subjectivity that is intimately connected to a TSA officers own prejudices regarding race, national origin, and/ or religion. Hardly a basis for scientific behavioral screening, SPOT’s techniques have been criticized and challenged by civil rights organizations across the board.
Rep. Thompson recently lambasted the TSA as "fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars.” Though the TSA serves a necessary and important function to keep our modes of mass transportation as safe as possible, we cannot continue to have U.S. taxpayers fund programs that in turn profile them. Administrator Neffenger would do well to share the findings of the report TSA is finalizing on SPOT's rationale - and act to reform the agency accordingly.