The Corner

GAO Report: The TSA Wasted $900 Million of Your Money

The Washington Post reports on a new Government Accountability Office surveying concluding that the $200 million that the TSA spends every year on the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program (SPOT), intended to spot terrorists, isn’t working and should be ended. We have already spent close to $900 million on the program, despite early worries that it wouldn’t work. It requires TSA agents to be able to successfully profile passengers in a crowd, which means distinguishing between whether a passenger looks off because he’s, say, tired or because he’s up to no good.

Of course, TSA isn’t happy about the GAO report. After all, any criticisms of the program’s ineffectiveness could translate into less money for the agency and fewer employees:

The TSA defended the program Wednesday.

“Behavior detection is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect, and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation,” the TSA said in statement responding to the report. “Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach used by law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world.”

The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program employs 2,800 TSA personnel.

“TSA has not demonstrated that [behavior-detection officers] can consistently interpret the SPOT behavioral indicators,” the GAO report says. “The subjectivity of the SPOT behavioral indicators and variation in BDO referral rates raise questions about the continued use of behavior indicators for detecting passengers who might pose a risk to aviation security.”

Chris Edwards at Cato Institute adds the following remarks about the program:

Here are observations about SPOT from my new Cato study on the TSA to be released next Tuesday:

“The SPOT program illustrates the problems with top-down federal control over aviation security. The TSA ‘deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis’ for it, notes the GAO. Nor did the TSA perform a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT before it was deployed. That is the way that the federal government often works—it rolls out an expensive ‘solution’ for the entire nation without adequate research, and it resists efforts to cut programs even if the benefits do not materialize.”

The new Cato study focuses on a decade of TSA shortcomings and the advantages of privatizing airport security screening. In sharp contrast to the American approach of a federal monopoly over aviation security, the great majority of European countries and Canada use competitive contracting for airport screening.

The whole thing is here.

Veronique de Rugy — Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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