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TSA Asked to Divulge Screening Techniques

MANHATTAN (CN) - The Transportation Security Administration has stonewalled requests for information about "highly questionable" screening techniques long slammed as behavioral junk science, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a new federal complaint.

First used in U.S. airports in 2003, the TSA formalized these tactics four years later into a program called SPOT, short for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, according to the Thursday complaint.

Since that time, experts have found that SPOT is "discriminatory, ineffective, pseudo-scientific, and wasteful of taxpayer money," the ACLU notes.

"The TSA has spent over $1 billion on the SPOT program since 2007," the 15-page lawsuit states.

Congressional auditors at the Government Accountability Office recommended in the title of one Nov. 13, 2013, report on the program: "TSA Should Limit Future Funding for Behavior Detection Activities."

Nature, a science journal, also noted that peer-reviewed studies found no evidence of their effectiveness.

But TSA administrator John Pistoles defended the program before a congressional subcommittee one day after the GAO's report. His testimony revealed that the TSA deploys more than 3,000 so-called "behavior detection officers" to work full time.

Pointing to the use of such techniques in Canada, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, Pistoles adamantly denied that the program conflicts with what he called a "zero-tolerance" policy for racial profiling at the TSA.

SPOT's records show the opposite, the ACLU's new lawsuit contends.

"When the officers perceive clusters of such behaviors in an individual, they refer that person for secondary inspection and questioning," its lawsuit states. "During the secondary inspection process, if the officers perceive certain additional behaviors, they can refer the individual to law enforcement officers for further questioning, detention, and possibly arrest. Passengers, as well as behavior detection officers themselves, have complained that this process results in subjecting people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities to additional questioning and screening solely on the basis of their race."

Despite the use of its techniques for more than a decade, "there is no known instance in which these techniques were responsible for apprehending someone who posed a security threat," the lawsuit states.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 1, 2014, seeking to shed light on its scientific basis, officer training, program database and demographic data of those targeted.

The TSA denied its request for expedited processing and a fee waiver, the lawsuit says.

The ACLU says the documents are "vital to the public's understanding of whether the TSA can effectively use such techniques to screen for threats to aviation security."

It is represented by its National Security Project director Hina Shamsi.

A TSA spokesman declined to comment on pending litigation, and he said that the agency is in the process of responding to the ACLU's request.

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