Careful, airline passengers! If you happen to show up to your flight late, or are nervous about forgetting to turn off the lights before your trip, you may find yourself interrogated by one of the Transportation Security Administration’s 3,000 “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs). These lightly trained security sleuths are employing an actual “ scoring” system to identity terrorists trying to board a commercial airliner. Even “exaggerated yawning,” a “cold penetrating stare,” or strong “body odor” are among the tell-tale signs for which the eagle eyes – and noses – of these BDOs are watching.
In case you might be wondering who is paying for this nonsense – we are; the American taxpayers.
What TSA officially and coyly calls its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program is one of the many so-called security innovations concocted by the TSA, which describes itself as an “intelligence driven counter-terrorism agency.” And, while this program is yet another example of how the TSA now more closely resembles a Saturday Night Live skit than a serious federal agency tasked with protecting America’s commercial air system from terrorism, the laughs abruptly end when considering the financial costs and the loss of liberty that comes with it.
How did America transition from the Land of the Free – a country in which freedom to travel was long-considered (even by the Supreme Court) to be a fundamental right – to one in which we permit government employees to subject us to invasive searches if we smell bad or yawn too much?
It is easy – and accurate – to trace the current situation back to the reaction to the 9-11 terrorist attacks; but it actually began decades earlier, when law enforcement agents began taking liberties with the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, as part of the “War on Drugs.” Even then, however, the courts eventually put a stop to such practices as “drug courier profiles” conducted at airports. Those now-disallowed “profiles” included many of the same indices as TSA employs now in its SPOT program.
The language of the Fourth Amendment has not changed; and the Supreme Court has not overturned its ban on drug-courier profiling. Yet, TSA is currently subjecting air travelers to precisely the same arbitrary, unscientific profiling that drug agents are no longer allowed to use. What has changed? We have. We are a far more timid and fearful nation than we were in the 1970s; and the intrusiveness of government control over our lives has expanded to levels and into areas of behavior few would have dreamed possible four decades ago.
TSA cannot even justify the SPOT program with evidence that it actually works. According to the federal government itself, the program does not work; at least in terms of identifying terrorists. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the program essentially worthless and in a 2013 study, suggested it be defunded. Like the good bureaucrats they are, top officials at TSA continue to defend it; and for reasons unclear, Congress has refused to specifically de-fund it. Thus, the silliness continues, and the cost mounts.
Could it get worse? Absolutely. In reaction to a pair of recent incidents involving violence at TSA checkpoints, the TSA union is renewing the call to create armed TSA officers, with the power to arrest, or worse, kill perceived threats to TSA and passenger safety. We removed such language in the initial legislation establishing TSA after 9-11, and it would be a far graver mistake to permit it now, after seeing what TSA has come up with after nearly 15 years in existence.
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Bob Barr, represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.
Bob Barr is the author of The Meaning of Is: The Squandered Impeachment and Wasted Legacy of William Jefferson Clinton (2004), and LESSONS IN LIBERTY (2008), as well as co-author with Gary Aldrich of Thunder on the Left: An Insider’s Report on the Hijacking of the Democratic Party (2003)