Out of Control Policy Blog

Airport Security (Lack Thereof) or the Right Methods?

My colleague Bob Poole, in his most recent Airport Policy and Security Newsletter( # 51) highlighted the General Accounting Office report looking at airport security (or lack there of).

About the same day, the Washington Times also had a critical editorial citing many of the same problems.

As the Times pointed out “Despite this massive expenditure and the passage of seven years, the agency has not deployed the technology and isn't even sure any of the 10 new systems can address the greatest threats. According to a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there may not be any benefit from any of this any time soon.”

Bob said:  "One key finding is that after years and years of rhetoric about risk-based policy from both TSA (Transportation Security Agency) and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), "TSA's strategy does not incorporate some key risk management principles-a risk assessment, cost-benefit analysis, and performance measures." 

The Times echoed a similar thought with “GAO auditors found that TSA has not applied any risk analysis or cost-benefit analysis to ensure the effectiveness or need of the new technologies. GAO said that TSA doesn't even have "reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended."

One of Bob’s final comments “A section toward the end of the report also makes dismaying reading. It summarizes DHS's response to the report's eight recommendations, all of which the agency said it agrees with. In most cases, however, the GAO states its concerns that the agency either doesn't really mean it or that the actions it says it will take will not (or not fully) address the intent of the recommendation. In two cases, GAO cannot provide a detailed explanation of its concerns, because "TSA determined our evaluation to be sensitive security information."

Now comes an article today in the Washington Post entitled “TSA screening more than just carry-on bags” with subhead 'Behavior detection' officers covertly watch travelers' conduct”

The article tells us that the TSA has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S airports to identify potentially dangerous individuals.  The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate. 

  • "We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors."  We are trying to spot passengers that show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.  It is not easy to identify these offices as they “blend in” with other TSA screeners.  The behavioral officer is specially selected for their intelligence, maturity and ability to work with people.  These jobs do not require a background in behavior analysis
  • Koshetz said the TSA has established specific criteria for what is considered normal behavior "in an airport environment." She said officers react only if a passenger strays from those guidelines, which the TSA declines to reveal for security purposes.
  • The observation of passengers does not end at the airport.
    On an undisclosed number of domestic and international flights, federal air marshals pick up where the behavior detection officers leave off. 
  • The article cites many successes most of which are drug related however at least is one is threat of a bomb in the back pack.  The statistics for last year indicate that officers nationwide required 98,805 passengers to undergo additional screenings. Police questioned 9,854 of them and arrested 813.

It is not an easy job to ensure the public safety but is TSA using the right methods?

Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst


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