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TSA cited op-eds as a basis for their counter-terrorism strategy.

Jess McHugh
July 25, 2017

Air passengers have been subject to increasingly invasive procedures from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in recent years — including “intimate” pat-downs, removal of all food from carry-on luggage, and now separation of reading materials.

Many travelers have silently gone through security screenings under the assumption that the methods were keeping the U.S. safe from a terrorist attack. However, a new report has undermined that assumption, asserting instead that the TSA's behavior screening techniques have almost no basis in scientific evidence.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined all of the sources from which the TSA has founded its behavior detection techniques — the process through which agents are expected to determine who in an airport might be involved in malevolent activities.

TSA agents are supposed to be able to detect signs of deception or fear using dozens of behavioral indicators, including how someone swallows and the degree to which their eyes are open, according to the report. But GAO found that only three of some 178 sources the TSA cited as research for these techniques were deemed valid. Instead of citing academic journals, the agency overwhelmingly pointed to news reports and opinion pieces as justification for their methods.

“After pressing TSA for years to provide scientific justification for its billion dollar behavior detection program, it is ridiculous that TSA provided little more than news articles and opinion pieces,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), one of the members of Congress who requested the study, said after its release.

GAO shared their report with the Department of Homeland Security, who in turn responded by saying that many of TSA’s techniques did not need scientific evidence as they were common sense.

In a letter addressed to the authors of the study, DHS liaison Jim Crumpcracker pointed out that one of the signs TSA agents are supposed to look for is loose wires, particularly hanging near the wrist. Presence of such wires could indicate a suicide bomber, Crumpcracker wrote, without needing any supporting academic studies to prove so.

“While we respect the opinions of our GAO colleagues, TSA remains steadfast in the effectiveness of behavior detection and committed to training our officers in these widely used techniques,” TSA spokesperson Michelle Negron told Travel + Leisure in an emailed statement.

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