Posted by on August 03, 2011 in Blog

It’s more of the same for the TSA—they just can’t seem to get it right. Yesterday the Boston TSA, never far from scandal, began training on an "Israeli-style" screening process which, the Boston Herald reports, “requires screeners to make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.” The $1 billion national initiative has been underway for a few years now, and a number of airports throughout the country have adopted the Israeli method called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT. The intent is to implement SPOT at Logan International Airport within two weeks’ time, by August 15. SPOT uses Behavior Detection Officers or BDOs to monitor passengers and gauge their responses to questions and determine their level of suspicion. See the Department of Homeland Security website to review a more in-depth explanation of screening methodology.

So what is the issue with this type of system? On a basic level, it’s clearly far more subjective than the official TSA guidelines permit, allowing agents sweeping authority to act and respond to what they deem “suspicious” responses from passengers. It seems strange that the TSA’s approach to fixing a broken and ineffective screening system is to give misguided agents more power to make decisions on the spot at the expense of passengers. Moreover, it’s troubling that the TSA continues to pursue a costly screening model which is far too prone to abuses of power. Consider the method used by Israeli border authorities and its unapologetically prejudiced implementation.

For 30 years—and most recently in a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2009—AAI has advocated for U.S. citizens’ “right to enter” Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, expressing concern about Israeli treatment of large numbers of Americans legally entering and exiting those territories. The Israelis have imposed almost arbitrary sets of guidelines to single out specific people with ties to the Palestinian territories. The State Department acknowledges the abuses of Israeli-Style screening methods in its “Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Country Specific Information” page. Note what they say about Israeli screening methods in the Threats to Safety and Security section:

“U.S. citizens with Arabic or Muslim names, those born in Muslim or Middle Eastern countries, those who have been involved in missionary or activist activity, those who ask that Israeli stamps not be entered into their passport, and other U.S. citizen travelers have been delayed and subjected to close scrutiny by Israeli border authorities.”

One can only hope that the TSA will at least eschew the standard Israeli approach of asking people for proof of their religion. When we look at how this type of screening method is used in the most extreme circumstances, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we want to head in the same direction.