GAO: Improvement needed in three TSA screening programs

Wednesday - 3/28/2012, 8:44am EDT

Stephen Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues, GAO

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With public concern over TSA's body scanners and pat-downs, Congress is questioning the agency's methods of screening passengers.

Stephen Lord, the director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified that TSA still has room for improvement in three of its screening programs.

He shared his findings in a House Oversight and Government Committee hearing on Monday and had highlights from his testimony on The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

  • TSA has deployed a program that uses about 3,000 behavior detection officers who use a "complex scoring system" for surveiling people, Lord said.

    This program — called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT program — could be simplified, Lord said.

    In particular, GAO found that the performance metrics did not always measure things that are part of the TSA mission.

    "We thought it was a good idea if they refined the metrics and took some additional steps to better demonstrate the value of the program," Lord said.

  • Advanced imaging technology — better known as the full-body scanners — have generated a lot of interest from lawmakers in understanding the capabilities of the machines, Lord said.

    GAO found the technology is underutilized in some places where TSA installed the machines at airports with lower passenger volume, he said.

    At high-volume airports, the concern is that the processing takes too long. But TSA will have software accompanying the new generation of the scanners that will "hopefully speed up some of the processing," Lord said.

  • Currently, more than 2.1 million maritime workers are enrolled in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program.

    "It sounds really sexy. You have a computer chip embedded on a card. You can use it with a card reader. It should be a good way to limit access to secure areas that are ports and vessels, but we found a number of problems in the use of the cards," Lord said.

    For one, the cards were being used as a "flash pass" rather with a card reader, he said.

    Undercover GAO investigators were able to infiltrate ports under false identifications, he said.

The good news, Lord said, is TSA is trying to streamline its processes and become "more risk-based."

"This one-size-fits-all screening process ... is outdated and the administrator himself has acknowledged that," Lord said.

TSA is moving towards a pre-check or vetting process that will treat different passengers differently.

"If they know a lot about you, you'll be able to just zip right through," he said.

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