Last updated: 11:15 AM ET, Mon March 30 2015

TSA Behavior Checklist for Spotting Potential Terrorists Leaked

Airlines & Airports | Transportation Security Administration | Patrick Clarke | March 30, 2015

TSA Behavior Checklist for Spotting Potential Terrorists Leaked

Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images

According to a confidential Transportation Security Administration document obtained by The Intercept last week, the administration's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT program, relies on an extremely broad checklist to assist Behavior Detection Officers in detecting potential terrorists. 

The 92-point checklist includes common behaviors like fidgeting, whistling and blinking, and spans multiple categories that are worth different point totals.

The first category is "observation and behavior analysis," followed by whether the individual possesses "unusual items." The final category requires officers to look out for "signs of deception," which include behaviors like excessive throat clearing, wide eyes or rubbing hands. 

The SPOT program was first introduced back in 2007, but has generated controversy of late, with the Government Accountability Office ruling in 2013 that there's no evidence to support the idea that "behavioral indicators" like sweaty palms and yawning can correctly identify a potential terrorist. 

The GAO determined that "the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance."

Despite the GAO findings, the TSA continues to operate the $900 million program.

Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that the SPOT program leads to religious and racial profiling. 

In an emailed statement to The Intercept, a TSA spokesperson said that "behavior detection, which is just one element of the TSA's efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public, is vital to TSA's layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation."

In spite of the TSA's firm defense of SPOT, some former employees have expressed legitimate concern. 

"The SPOT sheet was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple 'behaviors' that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value," said an unidentified former BDO manager, who called the signs "ridiculous." 

"These are just 'catch all' behaviors to justify BDO interaction with a passenger," added the source. "A license to harass."

Although security is vital to air travel and the travel industry as a whole, the broad checklist is likely to fuel the ongoing debate regarding the SPOT program's overall legitimacy and effectiveness. 


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