The Transportation Security Administration was just sued for refusing to hand over information on its controversial behavioral screening program that auditors say might not actually work, despite costing billions of dollars.
The complaint—brought by the American Civil Liberties Union—alleges that the TSA failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request asking for details on the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program or SPOT.
The program, which started in 2007, was intended to ferret out potentially dangerous passengers based on how they’re behaving. TSA trains agents to spot suspiciously acting people then send them for additional screenings, pat-downs and questioning. However, since the TSA has provided very little information on the program, there’s little evidence to prove that it actually works.
"The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the agency can't hide the fact that there's no evidence the program works," ACLU staff attorney Hugh Handeyside said in a statement.
A Government Accountability Office report from last year concluded that there was no way to know how effective the program is, despite costing more than $1 billion since its creation.
"Consequently, after 10 years of implementing and testing the SPOT program, TSA cannot demonstrate that the agency's behavior detection activities can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat to the U.S. aviation system," the GAO report said.
Additionally, critics have routinely accused the program of using racial profiling, and in some cases, TSA whistleblowers have confirmed their suspicions.
In 2013, 32 TSA officers at Boston’s Logan Airport revealed that their colleagues were intentionally targeting Hispanics, blacks and people of Middle Eastern origin.
In another case, behavior detection officers at Newark Liberty International Airport reportedly targeted Mexican and Dominican passengers –and even nicknamed themselves "the Great Mexican Hunters."
The TSA, for its part, says officers are only told to observe behaviors… and that it has taken steps to make sure there are no instances of racial profiling.
Still, the agency hasn’t specified exactly what officers are told to watch for, but it maintains that people are not flagged based on appearance, race, ethnicity or religion.
According to the complaint, the ACLU said, "the public lacks information about the basis for the programs, the training and professionalism of those who implement them, their efficacy, and the extent to which they disproportionately impact minorities. Such information is of significant and urgent value to millions of Americans who travel by air each year. Without disclosure of the records sought, members of the public will not be able to assess for themselves whether the programs are necessary, effective, or subject to sufficient limits and oversight."
The TSA has not publicly commented on the lawsuit; instead, it claims that it is still processing the FOIA request.
The lawsuit comes at a time when the Obama administration is increasingly under fire for failing to respond to comply with FOIA.
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