The Public Policy

TSA Goes Coin-Flipping

The worst example of bad government today.

By 4.2.14

UPI
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Twenty years ago it was the U.S. Postal Service that was the iconic example of what’s wrong with the federal government. The Post Office was big, bloated, and known for sketchy service. Making matters worse, the Post Office often appeared to be fighting off bankruptcy. Federal Express turned criticism of the Post Office into a major advertising campaign for its overnight delivery service.

Today, the representative example of bad government is the Transportation Security Administration. TSA has a labor force of 65,000 employees. It has cost the American taxpayer about $75 billion. This includes more than $60 billion spent through 2012 and nearly $8 billion spent in each of 2013 and 2014.

In spite of its gigantic size and cost, TSA has not caught one terrorist. Not one airline hijacking is known to have been foiled. However, more than 25,000 security breaches have occurred on its watch.

The biggest threats to airline passengers have consistently come the TSA. TSA baggage screeners have stolen passengers' valuables, committed rape, groped women, humiliated breast cancer survivors, strip-searched infants, bullied the elderly, fondled genitals, and disassembled prosthetic devices on wounded military. TSA has also been identified as a major security risk when it comes to safeguarding the personal data of passengers. In fact, the TSA has made flying America's worst travel experience. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

Consider this example of how TSA wastes manpower and money. TSA has spent more than one billion dollars on 3,000 behavioral detection officers. BDOs are the screeners who supposedly identify high-risk passengers using behavioral indicators. The formal name of TSA’s behavioral detection program is the “Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique” or SPOT program.

In the seven years since the SPOT program’s 2007 inception (according to this GAO report), only 0.6% of airline passengers that were identified by behavioral detection officers warranting further scrutiny led to an arrest. Moreover, not one arrest appears to have been terrorism-related.

In other words, 99.4% of the thousands of passengers pulled aside by BDOs in order to undergo invasive searches, hand pat-downs, and third-degree questioning were innocent travelers who were unnecessarily delayed in getting to their flights.

The Government Accountability Office has issued four reports (first report, second report, third report & fourth report) that are very critical of the TSA’s SPOT program. The TSA has not taken this criticism lightly. It issued its own report purportedly illustrating the success of the BDO program. Unfortunately for the TSA, it used incorrect data in formulating its report, which the GAO kindly pointed out.

There’s more. The GAO examined more than 400 studies of behavioral detection techniques. According to the GAO, the “findings from over 400 studies related to detecting deception conducted over the past 60 years, other academic and government studies, and interviews with experts in the field, called into question the use of behavior observation techniques, that is, human observation unaided by technology, as a means for reliably detecting deception.”

The GAO found that the use of behavioral cues or indicators yielded results of identifying high-risk passengers as only slightly better than chance. Instead of spending one billion dollars on its 3,000 behavioral detection officers the TSA could have had its airport screeners merely flip a quarter to decide which innocent airline passengers were worthy of getting the full monty.

(Previous AmSpec columns on the TSA by this author are Nov 23, 2010 and Dec 8, 2010.)

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.