New Government Report: TSA Has No Basis for How It Picks Out Terrorists, Just Makes Stuff Up

The TSA has had employees roaming the airports watching passengers, using their spidey senses to figure out who might be a terrorist.

Four years ago the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General concluded that the TSA’s behavior detection efforts didn’t work and racially profiled. I’ve argued that TSA literally has no science in its files to support its efforts. Now the government agrees.

Indeed the ‘checklist’ they use considers criticism of the TSA to be a sign you’re a terrorist.

The Government Accountability Office analyzed the TSA Behavior Detection Program and there’s really no clearer way to put it than how the GAO puts it themselves. It’s hard to imagine government bureaucrats even writing this so soberly.

    The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not have valid evidence that most of the revised behavioral indicators (28 of 36) used in its behavior detection activities can be used to identify individuals who may pose a threat to aviation security.

    ..In GAO’s review of all 178 sources TSA cited as support for its revised list, GAO found that 98 percent (175 of 178) of the sources do not provide valid evidence that is applicable to the specific behavioral indicators TSA cited them as supporting.

    ..Seventy-seven percent of the sources TSA cited (137 of 178) are news articles, opinion pieces, presentations created by law enforcement entities and industry groups, and screen shots of online medical websites that do not meet GAO’s definition of valid evidence.

    ..[Only e]leven percent of the sources TSA cited (20 of 178) are original research sources reporting original data and methods. However, 5 of these sources do not meet generally accepted research standards. Of the 15 sources that meet generally accepted research standards, 12 do not present information and conclusions that are applicable to the specific behavioral indicators TSA cited these sources as supporting.

    In total, GAO found that 3 of the 178 total sources cited could be used as valid evidence to support 8 of the 36 behavioral indicators in TSA’s revised list. More specifically, TSA has one source of valid evidence to support each of 7 indicators, 2 sources of valid evidence to support 1 indicator, and does not have valid evidence to support 28 behavioral indicators.

The TSA considers op-eds and news articles to be scientific evidence. Nearly everything they’re doing to pick out who they think might be a terrorist is built on no science whatsoever. Yet “GAO makes no new recommendations in this report.”

I’ve argued that the same government agency should not be both regulating security policy and carrying out security screening. That’s one key benefit of using private contractors at the checkpoint. The rest of the world does better with private screeners.

Sounds like there are still a ‘few bad apples’ at TSA who in no way reflect the good work thousands of others do to protect our nation day in and day out.

(HT: Daniel P.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Agreed, there is nothing “scientific” about how the TSA should be conducting meaningful screenings.

  2. You keep saying about bad apples. If the tree itself is poisonous, will the fruit be edible?

    Do they have any education, skill, expertise to spot a potential terrorist? Were they have degree in psychology, psychiatrist, or criminology?

    The institution only played the traumatic event of 9/11 to enforce their existence. As hardworking as those TSA agent can be, are they really different from a thug or a bouncer aside from the uniform?

  3. Of course they don’t have proper training – – political correctness has assured that will never happen.

  4. @James, “I’m pretty sure the “bad apples” tag is meant to be ironic. What I see is a massive waste of resources. I think a lot of it is just for justifying jobs and has nothing to do with actual security.

  5. @PETE is 100% correct. Want good Airport security lets the Israeli’s train them and set their policies for them.

  6. I thought TSA was receiving g training from Israel profilers?
    Did this ever happen?

  7. Hey TLiT, what are your thoughts on a workable solution? Not just bitching and whining about the TSA and throwing out misleading “facts”, but a real-world solution? According to you, anything that catches better than 6% of the prohibited items would be an improvement, no?

  8. I disagree vehemently that contractors at checkpoints are the solution. The contractors TSA uses at SFO are the most capricious and unpleasant in enforcing nitpicking and non-substantive criteria regarding travelers, and apparently have been empowered to prioritize their own rules. I’d like to see a comparison of contractors versus TSA, including post-contact traveler evaluations, before setting these people out as a magical solution. But yes, you are correct TSA shouldn’t be in charge of inspecting its own performance.

  9. Video was really funny.

    TSA is a big mess. However, I cannot think of a good alternative. What are peoples ideas on how to fix it? Gary any thoughts?

    To be honest, I wish it was more predictable and efficient. For example, after customs and recheck of my bag, there was this massive line and no TSA precheck for the connection. It took 30 to 40 minutes. I mean, seriously, the planes have schedules. Traffic is more or less predictable. Why does there always be a long line. I had a three hour connection, but barely had any time in the lounge, because of the TSA. Seriously, this is not rocket science. Bananas always arrive just in time to be ripe after being transported around the world. Amazon works. McDonald’s is efficient. Why cannot the TSA be minimally efficient.

    Unfortunately, I am afraid this administration is going to make the travel experience worse. To be unpredictable, they are going to muck with the rules. I imagine one could fly to Europe and bring a laptop, only to find they changed the rules and laptops are not allowed at all. Imagine being at the airport and finding out your laptop is now totally prohibited.

    I think Gary’s posts about security are excellent. It allows the frequent passenger to be informed about these issues before flying.

  10. They are the best security in the world
    I have been pullled over for the most dangerous legitimate security reasons
    Perrier water Godivas hair gel and rock revival jean wearing
    Meanwhile guns knives and bullets go undetected
    Government spending of Billions on X-ray equipment well spent
    Thank God for the TSA

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