When the uproar over full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs at airport checkpoints hit a crescendo around the Thanksgiving holiday and then quickly dissipated, many security professionals and journalists asked why the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not behaviorally profile passengers as Israel does.
This line of thought was exemplified cogently by Thomas E. McNamara, a former US ambassador at large for counterterrorism, at the height of the uproar over the TSA’s intrusive searches just before Thanksgiving. “[W]e need to develop a much broader profiling program that gives primacy to patterns of activities and behaviors,” McNamara argued in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times. “This profiling would not key primarily on race, ethnicity or nationality, but it would not totally ignore them either. Rather, it would rely primarily on intelligence and law enforcement and on consular, airline and other information related to an individual’s recent and long-term behavior.” And as the Mail Online’s David Rose recently observed after reviewing security at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Israeli security relies on behavioral profiling rather than full-body scanners to determine whether a passenger presents a threat.
The rationale behind behavioral profiling is straightforward. It’s better to detect terrorists with malicious intent rather than weapons. After all, the 19 hijackers during 9/11 were able to commandeer four airplanes, armed with little more than box cutters and bomb threats, and kill nearly 3,000 people. The best prevention is ensuring terrorists don’t board planes.
The problem, however, may be that the TSA already behaviorally profiles passengers and developed its program without verifying that it actually works. Known as the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) reportfrom May discovered that the agency has allocated nearly $400 million on the four-year-old program that has not been validated scientifically, has not been rolled out cost-effectively and has not detected at least 17 alleged terrorists from boarding airplanes at US airports.
And while the program is based at least partly on what occurs at Israeli airports, the GAO says replicating the Israeli model would prove difficult due to the size of American commercial aviation and political concerns. Despite all this, the White House wants to expand the controversial and untested program next year.