A prominent civil rights group on Thursday filed a lawsuit seeking details about the controversial airport-security practice known as “behavioral detection,” which critics suspect of leading to racial profiling.
The American Civil Liberty Union’s complaint asks a U.S. district court in New York to order the release of documents that the group requested from the Transportation Security Administration in October.
More than five months after the initial inquiry, the agency has not handed over anything except a denial for expedited processing.
The Freedom of Information Act requires federal agencies to respond to records requests within 20 days, but processing regularly takes months or even years, especially when the materials require redactions of sensitive information or complicated searches for documents.
TSA declined to comment for this article, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
TSA uses behavioral detection for its Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program, in which specially trained officers send suspicious passengers for additional screening such as pat-downs, questioning and sometimes investigations by law-enforcement. The agency also uses the techniques to select passengers for expedited screening.
TSA has never explained what types of behaviors raise flags, but critics say fidgeting, sweating and eye movement can be seen as signs of bad intent.
The ACLU lawsuit says behavioral detection has not led to any known apprehensions of individuals who pose a security threat and that “the public knows little about the scope, effectiveness or purported scientific basis for these programs.”
The group’s records request asks for information related to the program’s justification, training, arrest rates and accountability measures.
The Government Accountability Office questioned the usefulness of behavioral detection in a 2014 report, saying there is no solid evidence that the program is effective and that Congress should limit funding for it.
Former TSA Administrator John Pistole defended the practices that year, testifying before a congressional panel that they are critical to aviation security because they help identify intent rather than just prohibited items.
“Defunding the program is not the answer,” Pistole told the congressional panel in 2013. “There would be fewer passengers going through expedited screening, there would be increased pat downs, there would be longer lines, and more frustration by the traveling public.”
Pistole, who retired in December, also said profiling is ineffective and has “absolutely no place” in the program, promising that TSA thoroughly investigates any allegations of such conduct.
The union that represents TSA employees has defended behavioral detection, saying an imperfect deterrent to terrorist attacks is better than no deterrent at all.