“The SPOT program is bullshit,” the manager told The Intercept. “Complete bullshit.”
A TSA officer signals an airline passenger forward at a security check-point at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Monday, Jan. 4, 2010 (AP/Elaine Thompson)
Obtained exclusively by The Intercept and described in a news story on Friday, a leaked Transportation Safety Administration document reveals the “suspicious signs”—including excessive yawning, a cold hard stare, or a rigid posture—that TSA agents have been trained to look for as airline passengers make their way through U.S. airports in the post-9/11 era.
The document details how a 92-point checklist for TSA agent is divided into numerous categories with a point score corresponding to the various kinds of personal traits or behaviors exhibited by unwitting travelers.
According to The Intercept:
The checklist is part of TSA’s controversial program to identify potential terrorists based on behaviors that it thinks indicate stress or deception — known as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT. The program employs specially trained officers, known as Behavior Detection Officers, to watch and interact with passengers going through screening.
The document listing the criteria, known as the “Spot Referral Report,” is not classified, but it has been closely held by TSA and has not been previously released. A copy was provided to The Intercept by a source concerned about the quality of the program.
The checklist ranges from the mind-numbingly obvious, like “appears to be in disguise,” which is worth three points, to the downright dubious, like a bobbing Adam’s apple. Many indicators, like “trembling” and “arriving late for flight,” appear to confirm allegations that the program picks out signs and emotions that are common to many people who fly.
The TSA responded to The Intercept’s inquiries about the document by calling it “just one element” of its strategy to “mitigate threats against the traveling public,” but the journalists who reported the story, Cora Currier and Jana Winter, point out that strong evidence exists that these kinds of programs are very ineffective in accurately identifying or predicting passengers who may want to cause harm.
“The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the agency can’t hide the fact that there’s no evidence the program works,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU which just filed a lawsuit against the agency for failing to publicly disclose requested information about the SPOT program.
One former Behavior Detection Officer manager, who asked not to be identified, told Currier and Winter that the TSA approach to profiling passengers suffers from both lack of science and simple inconsistency, with every airport training its officers differently. “The SPOT program is bullshit,” the manager told The Intercept. “Complete bullshit.”