Lawmaker challenges TSA on claims of ethnic profiling

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 28, 2011

At the Hono­lulu airport, federal officers who allegedly profiled Mexicans are known as “Mexicutioners.” At Newark Liberty International Airport, the profiling officers are called “Mexican hunters.”

In both cases, according to local media reports, co-workers gave the nicknames to colleagues who targeted passengers as an easy way for Transportation Security Administration employees to drive up their productivity numbers.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

These allegations of ethnic profiling resulted in staff retraining in Newark and have led a member of Congress to again question the effectiveness, validity and legitimacy of a program designed to detect suspected terrorists.

TSA’s behavioral detection officers use SPOT, the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, a counterterrorism tool designed to observe people who might have high levels of deception, fear or stress.

But a report this month by KITV in Hono­lulu, which followed a Newark Star-Ledger story in June, led an increasingly frustrated Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) to once more press TSA Administrator John Pistole to suspend the program. Thompson first raised questions about SPOT in August 2010 when he was chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

In a Nov. 22 letter to Pistole, Thompson said the allegations “not only underscored my original concerns regarding the validity of the SPOT program but have led me to believe that serious management challenges remain which exacerbate my initial misgivings about the program’s legitimacy.”

Thompson, the top Democrat on the committee, said SPOT could result in “legally impermissible racial profiling as a product of a program that relied upon physical appearance as a factor in split-second decisions by TSOs [transportation security officers] about which passengers should be targeted, stopped and questioned under the rubric of ‘behavior detection.’ ”

Pistole has not yet responded to the November letter, but in an October letter to Thompson, Pistole said “no other counterterrorism or similar security program is known to have been subjected to such a rigorous, systematic evaluation of its screening accuracy. . . . The SPOT Validation Study demonstrated that SPOT screening is nine times more effective than random screening for identifying potential high-risk passengers.”

In September, Pistole told Thompson that SPOT training emphasizes “that racial or ethnic profiling is not tolerated and that it detracts from the real threat as high risk passengers do not fit any specific profile. If allegations of profiling arise, TSA immediately conducts an investigation and takes corrective action as warranted.”

It did take action after learning some Newark airport management officials might have engaged in misconduct.

“Ultimately, TSA took disciplinary action against one EWR [Newark airport] SPOT manager,” Pistole said. “As a result of the investigation’s findings, TSA has retrained the entire EWR Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) staff and appointed new management officials at EWR.”

Yet, to Thompson, the similar reports from opposite ends of the country “do not support the contention that training and supervision insulate the program from racial profiling by BDOs.” Furthermore, he added, the disciplinary action, retraining and appointment of new managers in Newark “stand as clear testament to the flawed nature of this program despite explicit statements contained in the training manuals and ‘hands on’ supervision by officials.”

Thompson also cited a Government Accountability Office report that said 39 percent of arrests resulting from SPOT referrals were for immigration issues.

“I feel this statistic implies that there could be racial or ethnic biases influencing SPOT referrals,” Thompson said in a June letter to Pistole.

In his October letter, Pistole said: “There are several reasons a large percentage of arrests resulting from SPOT screening are due to an individual’s immigration status. . . . A person in the U.S. illegally is aware that they will be subjected to . . . [thorough] screening and may have a fear of discovery due to the potential consequences, including arrest and/or deportation from the country. Similarly, a passenger who may intend to harm an aircraft may also have a fear of discovery. . . . BDOs have no way of knowing if an individual they are referring is carrying an explosive device or attempting to conceal their immigration status due to the strong correlation between criminal and terrorist behaviors.”

For Thompson, SPOT issues seem to reflect the difference between theory and practice.

“These incidents and the failure of both training and supervision to prevent the practice of racial profiling,” he wrote last week, “are clear indications that more research, evaluation, and testing must be completed before behavior detection can be successfully integrated at aviation security checkpoints.”

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