TSA behavioral screening works 'same as or slightly better than chance': report

Transportation Security Administration baggage screener checks passengers' luggage at Miami International Airport in Miami
A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screener checks passengers' luggage at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida November 1, 2013. TSA Federal Security Director Mark Hatfield on Friday announced a $101 million grant from TSA to install a new automated baggage screening system at Miami International Airport. REUTERS/Joe Skipper (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT) (REUTERS)

The Transportation Security Administration's near-billion-dollar behavioral screening program — used for years by TSA screeners to identify people who might be security risks at airports — is not working, a new report from the Government Accountability Office concludes.

The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, installed by the TSA in 2007, trains screeners to recognize behavioral indicators — like fear or stress — that can be used to identify persons who might pose a risk to aviation security. Those who exhibit those indicators are subjected to additional security screening.

But according to the GAO report released on Wednesday, there's no evidence that the estimated 3,000 “behavior detection officers” at 176 U.S. airports are actually improving airport security.

“Available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security," the report said. "The human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance."

The report also showed the rate at which TSA officers referred passengers for additional screening varied significantly between airports in 2011 and 2012.

"Twenty-one of the 25 behavior detection officers GAO interviewed at four airports said that some behavioral indicators are subjective," the report said. "TSA officials agree, and said they are working to better define them."

The report recommends that Congress limit future funding of behavior detection programs.

The results of the study, first reported by NBC News, are sure to rankle some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“[It is] concerning, particularly in light of the fact that TSA has spent almost $1 billion on the program," Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement to NBC News

“While I believe that there is value in utilizing behavioral detection and analysis in the aviation environment, we can only support programs that are proven effective. The terrorist threats to our aviation system require us to constantly re-evaluate and evolve our security procedure, and if this program isn't working, we need to find something that will."

John Pistole, the TSA adminstrator, is scheduled to appear before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.