Airport security must be priority

First Posted: 11/18/2013

Two weeks ago, a lone gunman opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport, tragically killing one Transportation security officer and wounding two other officers and a high school teacher. My sincerest condolences go out to the victims and their families. Transportation security officers take great personal risk every day in order to secure our nation’s aviation system and while it’s fair to question certain policies and actions of TSA, we ought to be thankful for the service of the individual TSA employees.

In light of that recent tragedy, it is critical, now more than ever, for TSA to conduct a comprehensive review of security programs to ensure that resources are being used in the most effective and efficient manner, and that coordination and communication with local law enforcement is seamless. This past week I held a hearing with TSA Administrator John Pistole to review TSA’s current security programs and the Government Accountability Office report that evaluated TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. Given the recent event at LAX, it was imperative that we also examine the overall effectiveness of TSA’s transportation security operations.

TSA’s SPOT program deploys more than 3,000 behavior detection officers in an effort to identify passengers who may pose a risk to aviation security. These TSA employees are not trained law enforcement officers. As such, they rely on state and local law enforcement to handle any situations that may arise beyond the screening of passengers and baggage or if they think someone is acting suspiciously. However, as we discussed in the hearing, the recent GAO report pointed out that the way the behavior detection officers determine if someone is acting suspicious, is not based on proven science. Additionally, the study concluded that the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same or only slightly better than chance. That is definitely not something I, or any other travelers, want to hear.

Because of these findings, the GAO has recommended that TSA limit future funding for behavior detection activities until it can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who pose a threat to aviation security. With that being said, I do see value in using behavior analysis to bolster aviation security, but only when we can prove that taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most effective manner possible. Perhaps reinforcing local law enforcement officers at airports who are well equipped to detect suspicious behavior, makes more sense than spending $900 million on 3,000 employees doing behavior detection at TSA.

We know the threats to aviation are real. Our enemies continue to plot against us. We need layers of security, but those layers have to make sense. They can’t be based on a hunch; they must be proven. The hearing this past week was the start of a serious conversation about the additional research that is needed to validate the program’s effectiveness and/or alternative security measures that would be more effective to deter and prevent attacks on our aviation system. Congress will continue to conduct oversight of the program and will have regular briefings with TSA to ensure this agency is held accountable and making strides in ensuring security for all travelers.

Richard Hudson is the U.S. House representative for District 8, which includes most of Robeson County.