GAO Report Leads to Call for Overhaul of TSA

AOL News (May 20) -- The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency responsible for the nation's aviation security, took two major hits today.

First, the agency's effectiveness at stopping terrorists at airports was called into question in a report released by Congress' investigative arm. Then U.S. Rep. John Mica pointed to that report as more proof that the TSA is in need of a complete overhaul.

Mica, a Florida Republican, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano describing the TSA as "an agency teetering on the verge of disaster."

At issue in the report is the TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation Technique program, or SPOT. The program uses trained behavior-detection officers to look for suspicious behavior among airline passengers at airports. However, a review of the program conducted by the Government Accountability Office and released today says the system has never been tested and rests on shaky science.

"Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is in the process of validating some aspects of the SPOT program, TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment," the report states. "A scientific consensus does not exist on whether behavior detection principles can be reliably used for counterterrorism purposes, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences."

About 3,000 behavior-detection officers are deployed at around 161 airports, according to the TSA. The officers, who receive specialized training in spotting deceptive behavior, refer suspected passengers for secondary screening.

Mica, the ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, cited the GAO report as yet more proof that TSA has proved ineffective at stopping terrorists. In his letter to Napolitano, he also wrote that suspected Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad had boarded a plane, despite being on a no-fly list and being at an airport that employed behavior-detection officers.

"GAO's report confirms that TSA has bungled the development and deployment of a potentially important layer of aviation security," Mica said in a statement released today. "Other countries, such as Israel, successfully employ behavior detection techniques at their airports, but the bloated, ineffective bureaucracy of TSA has produced another security failure for U.S. transportation systems."

TSA, however, continues to vigorously defend the SPOT program, which it calls a key layer of security.

"Our behavior-detection officers have identified illegal activities that have resulted in more than 1,700 arrests at transportation systems across the country -- most notably spotting an individual who was discovered to have explosive components at the Orlando airport in 2008," TSA spokesman Sterling Payne wrote to AOL News in an e-mailed statement about the report.

"Our methods are based in science and have been used by law enforcement and the military in the U.S. and abroad for decades," he said.

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