updated 6:36 p.m. ET, Thurs., May 20, 2010
WASHINGTON - A new government report says at least 16 known terrorists have passed through U.S. airports where federal officials were trained to spot suspicious behavior.
The Government Accountability Office report says that between May 2004 and August 2008, behavior detection officers who work for the Transportation Security Administration made about 1,100 arrests. None were for terrorism.
The report questions the standards used by the TSA for the behavioral detection officers, the people assigned to watch for suspicious behavior in airports that could signal someone preparing for a terrorist attack.
The TSA has deployed about 3,000 of these specialists at high-volume airports. And while they have spotted people who were subsequently arrested for a number of crimes — illegal immigrants predominately — the GAO says because the program has not been scientifically validated, "it cannot be determined if the results were better than if passengers had been pulled aside at random."
The GAO also said that at least 16 people who were later involved in terror plots traveled several times through eight airports where the detection monitoring program was in effect, and none of the 16 was ever stopped.
The GAO noted that it was unable to discover whether the detection officers were stationed at any of the checkpoints used by these 16 people. Plus, it appears that the 16 were not engaged in any terrorist attacks on these flights but were on trips to further their plans — going for training, for example — so they might not have exhibited the kind of behavior the officers are trained to detect.
The TSA on Thursday defended the program to NBC News, saying it was responsible for "spotting an individual who was discovered to have explosive components at the Orlando airport in 2008. Our methods are based in science and have been used by law enforcement and the military in the U.S. and abroad for decades."
Florida Republican Rep. John Mica says behavior detection officers were working at New York's Kennedy airport when the Times Square bomb suspect passed through airport security undetected.
The behavior detection program is one of 20 layers in the nation's aviation security.