Dem lawmaker: TSA should suspend behavior detection program

The Transportation Security Administration should suspend its behavior detection program because it allows for racial profiling at airport security, a Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee said Tuesday. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, said Tuesday that TSA should stop its Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program until it proves to Congress that the program does not allow airport passengers to be profiled based on their races. 

"While the program has been in operation for over five years, to date, TSA has failed to provide Congress with any of the ... documents that would be required to undertake such an examination," of the program's fairness, Thompson wrote in a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole. 

"I urge you to suspend the operation of the SPOT program until these documents are provided to the committee and until an independent third party can complete a comprehensive examination of the scientific validity and operational integrity of this program," Thompson continued. 

Thompson said his concerns about the SPOT program, which he has expressed before, were renewed by recent news reports about alleged profiling at Boston's Logan International Airport.

"TSA must regard this most recent report — the third such report in one year — as a clarion call to take immediate and comprehensive action," he wrote. "It is my understanding that over 30 employees have come forward to express concerns about racial profiling at Logan Airport. Surely, this kind of outpouring should constitute 'sufficient evidence to substantiate allegation of racial profiling.'"

TSA has touted its "risk-based" security techniques such as the SPOT program and a separate known-traveler program as a way to improve airport security experiences. The agency has been criticized for its previous techniques like pat-down hand searches and X-ray machines.

The agency said Tuesday evening that it was investigating the allegations that were cited by Thompson.

“Allegations of racial profiling in Boston have been reported to TSA and are currently under investigation," TSA said in a statement. "If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity."  

TSA said its behavior detection programs were designed to "comply with DHS and DOJ civil rights policies for law enforcement and security activities and have been developed with the approval of subject matter experts, including renowned behavioral psychologists and experts in the field of behavioral analysis. 

"Racial profiling is not tolerated within the ranks of TSA, including within the behavior detection program," the TSA statement said. "Profiling is not only discriminatory, but it is also an ineffective way to identify someone intent on doing harm.  Officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening that are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”

-This story was updated with new information at 9:39 p.m.