At a moment when borders and surveillance have become sharply divisive issues at home and abroad, all Americans should object to one of the great federal security failures playing out every day. The Transportation Security Administration’s behavior detection program, designed to catch terrorists by looking out for telltale words and actions, just doesn’t work. And we know because of the TSA’s own hidden assessment of the effort.
For years, the TSA has turned in an exceptionally poor performance. (In 2007, its failure rate on screenings hit 75 percent.) In an all-too-characteristic act of government non-transparency, the TSA itself did its level best to obscure the embarrassing details about the misbegotten project — although, in 2013, the GAO dismissed it as ineffective too. The ACLU had to file suit against the agency two years ago after the bureaucrats stonewalled its Freedom of Information Act request. Successfully prying reams of documents out of Washington’s hands, the ACLU revealed that expert studies collected by the TSA contradict the basic premise of the behavior detection program.
Naturally, officials vow it’s been worth it to pump over a billion dollars into an undertaking that includes plainclothes officers monitoring people who seem “off” because stopping terrorism requires a variety of different approaches. But the execution doesn’t measure up to the concept. Allegations and anecdotes of racial and ethnic profiling have multiplied, but a lack of records has made investigation impossible. And those who don’t belong to singled-out minority groups have their own reasons to disapprove of weakly accountable secret snoopers with no track record of stopping attacks.
There’s got to be a better way. Americans have largely lost patience with wasteful and invasive ineptitude from inside the Beltway, no matter how well-intentioned or initially reasonable on paper. If the TSA doesn’t want Congress to consider shuttering the behavior detection program, it had better find a way to make its operations more transparent, more cost-effective and more in tune with Americans’ basic expectations around civil liberties and political accountability. Otherwise, the whole agency could find itself on the chopping block.
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