TSA Passenger Screening Program Nothing More than Sanctioned Racial Profiling

TSA Passenger Screening Program Nothing More than Sanctioned Racial Profiling


Amid this week’s major revelations that our government collected internet and phone records on millions of Americans and foreigners alike, another more direct intrusion on our privacy has been going on in dozens of airports for the past seven years.

Agents at Boston’s Logan International Airport said fellow employees in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) behavior detection program were targeting minorities for questioning based on their race or ethnicity. In fact, the TSA’s own Inspector General found that the behavioral detection program, called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), has done little more in the past seven years than racial profiling of countless unsuspecting passengers.
Based on controversial research that claims paying attention to so-called universal microexpressions can help undercover agents catch a terrorist before he/she boards an airplane, the program has cost nearly $1 billion and has failed to identify, capture, detain or prevent a single terrorist from boarding an aircraft since its inception. Taking into account the current economic realities of our nation and the sequestration, the evidence is even more disturbing that our tax dollars are being wasted on this fundamentally flawed program.

A Government Accountability Office report from 2010 regarding the SPOT program found that “at least 17 known terrorists traveled through at least 23 U.S. airports in the SPOT program without being detected.” Instead, BDOs have profiled Hispanics traveling to Florida and African Americans wearing backwards baseball caps.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General found that “TSA cannot ensure that passengers at U.S. airports are screened objectively.” Also, he concluded that the cost-effectiveness of the program is a failure and that the TSA cannot reasonably justify expanding the program. SPOT has lasted thus far without an independent audit on the effectiveness of the program, an assessment of the program itself, a financial plan, a comprehensive training program for the officers, or guaranteed outreach to local partners.

Congressman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, has sent the TSA multiple inquiries about the program and eventually called for a hearing and for the program to be canceled in a recent amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, H.R. 2217. Unfortunately, the amendment was not passed, leaving the unjustified program intact.

Additionally, MPAC also voiced opposition to the program in a letter to Secretary Napolitano and Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards. The letter reads in part:
 …This is a matter of preserving our national security. The SPOT program is ineffective and counterproductive. The fact that we are spending almost $1 billion taxpayer dollars on a program that cannot be justified by the IG himself contradicts the outspoken principles of preserving our open society established in word and in deed by you and the President.

TSA’s failure to implement proper controls to respond to racial and religious profiling, and instead, its instance in creating a flawed SPOT program is an affront to civil rights and civil liberties enshrined in our nation’s Constitution. The SPOT program is ineffective and a waste of resources and funds. As it stands, the program represents government investment in racial profiling as a false measure of safety that betrays both our nation’s values and security.