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TSA's own files say its program to stop terrorists is unreliable, ACLU says

A controversial program designed to spot potential terrorists at airports by their actions and verbal clues is not supported by studies cited by the Transportation Security Administration and may be used to target minorities.

That is the conclusion reached by the ACLU after the group successfully sued the TSA to collect more than 12,000 pages of reports and studies used by the security agency to defend the effectiveness of the program.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 because the TSA failed to respond to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU said.

“The records include numerous academic studies and articles that directly undermine the premise of the program,” the ACLU said in a report released Wednesday. “The scientific literature in the TSA’s own files reinforces that deception detection is inherently unreliable.”

The TSA rejected the ACLU’s conclusions, saying the program is one of several layers of security designed to thwart terrorist threats.

“Behavior detection is threat-agnostic, and unlike technology, does not become obsolete when the adversary develops a new weapon or tactic,” TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson said.

At the center of the controversy is the TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program, known as SPOT. The program is designed to catch potential terrorists by deploying specially trained officers — some dressed in casual clothes — to question travelers and look for signs of stress, fear or deception. 

The TSA has spent more than $1 billion since the program was launched in 2007 to deploy about 3,000 behavior-detection officers to 176 of the more than 450 airports in the United States. 

This is not the first time the program has been under fire. The Government Accountability Office said in 2013 that a study that the Department of Homeland Security relied upon to validate the program was flawed and inconclusive.

The ACLU says the academic literature produced by the TSA to support the program, in fact, shows there are flaws to the premise that physical cues can point to a liar.

“Despite decades of research effort to maximize the accuracy of deception judgments, detection rates rarely budge,” according to a study offered by the TSA. It was written by professors at Texas Christian University and UC Santa Barbara.

The documents received by the ACLU suggest that some behavior detection officers may have targeted minorities, including Latino and Middle Eastern travelers, for extra questioning and screening. It cited investigations into racial profiling in Miami, Chicago and Honolulu.

But determining if TSA officers were guilty of racial profiling was difficult in some investigations because the TSA doesn’t keep track of the race or ethnicity of those travelers questioned under the behavior-detection program.

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Still, the ACLU released an anonymous comment written by a TSA officer to a private agency conducting a study for the TSA, saying: “What’s worse is I’ve heard a [behavior-detection officer] manager refer to passengers as ‘towel heads’ when speaking in a meeting with other management and his subordinates.”

Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said the documents were collected to make them available to the public to put pressure on other government agencies to investigate and eliminate the program.

“We are now putting the ball in the Congress’ court and the court of other oversight entities to take action,” he said. 

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.

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