Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is Expedited Screening Getting Too Much Attention from Bomb Dogs at Airports?

Additional Notes: In testifying before the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security on March 25, 2015, Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth complained that the Transportation Security Administration has been rather dismissive of his office's recommendations:

"We are concerned about TSA's response to our findings.  In the first inspection report, we made 17 recommendations and TSA did not accept the majority of these recommendations.  In the second inspection, we made three recommendations but TSA nonconcurred with two.  We made two recommendations in the third report and TSA concurred with only one.  We are disappointed that TSA did not concur with the majority of our recommendations, and we believe this represents TSA's failure to understand the gravity of the situation."

Although the statement of the IG as released to the press mentions Passenger Screening Canine Teams, there is no indication whether such teams are being specifically targeted for criticism.   It must be hoped that additional information will be released in the future.   

In testimony of Jennifer Grover, Director, Homeland Security and Justice (GAO-15-465T), TSA announced additional testing of canines will begin June 2015 and be completed March 2016, though no details of testing procedures or objectives were released. 

A cousin of mine went to the Phoenix Airport to fly to Newark.  Not a frequent flier, he was in one of the longer boarding lanes when a security officer pulled up a cloth strap between two poles and invited him and his wife to step into the fast lane for pre-screened passengers.  Delighted, they dragged their bags between the poles and were about 20 feet from the x-ray system when they passed a dog that they hardly noticed. My cousin was pulled aside and taken into a room.  He was told to empty his pockets and open up his carry-on bag.  After the initial search he was taken into another room where he had to remove most of his clothing.  He was told that a dog had alerted to the smell of explosives.  My cousin soon remembered that the pants he was wearing for the flight were the same ones he had worn to a firing range several days earlier.  Eventually he was allowed to board but the delay was considerable and they had no choice but to check their carry-ons because there was no space left in the overhead compartments.  Expedited screening had been anything but.
Increase in Expedited Screening from 2011 to 2014

What I did not realize until I read a recent Government Accountability Office Report was that had my cousin and his wife remained in the slow lane they would very likely not have been subjected to a bomb dog sniff.  It may have been because of their gray hair that they got the perk of expedited screening through a process called "managed inclusion," which adds ordinary passengers to the pre-screened system when those lanes have low traffic, and solely because they were moved into a fast lane that my cousin’s habit of frequenting Arizona gun ranges caused him to nearly miss a flight. 

GAO Report

In December, the Government Accountability Office released a public version of a sensitive report that was completed in September 2014.  The report, Aviation Security: Rapid Growth in Expedited Passenger Screening Highlights Need to Plan Effective Security Assessments.  GAO-15-150 (December 12, 2014) looks at how the Transportation Security Administration has implemented and expanded pre-screening to the point where, in April 2014, about 5.6 million individuals were eligible for expedited screening. Because many participating passengers are frequent fliers, the first graph shows that upwards of 15 million pre-screen passes have been issued in some months, amounting to over 40% of passengers nationwide.  The TSA has set a goal of making half of all passengers eligible for expedited screening. 

There are important advantages to being pre-screened:  

“[P]assengers eligible for expedited screening may no longer have to remove their shoes; may leave their permitted liquids, gels, and laptops in carry-on baggage; and are not required to divest light outerwear, jackets, or belts when passing through screening checkpoints unless the walk-through metal detector alarms, in which case these items must be removed.”

Just as there are passengers that qualify for expedited screening, there are passengers who are prohibited from boarding an aircraft because they are on the No Fly List, as well as passengers on a Selectee List who must undergo additional screening before being permitted to board an aircraft.  These individuals are on a Terrorist Screening Database, which is maintained by the FBI but available to multiple agencies. 

TSA PreTM Program

Paper and Electronic Pre-Screen Boarding Passes
In the summer of 2011, TSA began using expedited screening in standard lanes to passengers 12 and younger, 75 and older, and certain flight crew members.  In October 2011, TSA implemented the TSA PreTM program under which the agency began to evaluate passengers to determine if they presented a sufficiently low risk to be granted expedited screening. Initially, pre-screening for frequent fliers was implemented with two carriers at four airports, with accepted passengers going through expedited screening lanes known as PreTM lanes.  The two initial carriers were Delta Air Lines at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and American Airlines at the Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami International Airports. As of April 2014, there were nine carriers participating in the PreTM program.

The initial pilot program also included certain members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) three trusted traveler programs, NEXUS, SENTRI, and Global Entry.  The pilot program transitioned into a formal program in February 2012, and more airlines began to participate. Initially eligible passengers could only use PreTM lanes for airlines on which they were frequent fliers. 

TSA soon expanded the PreTM program to include members of the U.S. armed forces, Congressional Medal of Honor Society Members, members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, and Members of Congress.  In October 2013, TSA began a PreTM Risk Assessment Program to evaluate passenger risk data to determine the likelihood that passengers on which TSA had sufficient information would likely qualify for expedited screening.  In December 2013, TSA started taking applications for its own PreTM list.  As to how to get on this list, the GAO explains:

“To apply, individuals must visit an enrollment center where they provide biographic information (i.e., name, date of birth, and address), valid identity and citizenship documentation, and fingerprints to undergo a TSA Security Threat Assessment. TSA leveraged existing federal capabilities to both enroll and conduct threat assessments for program applicants using enrollment centers previously established for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential Program, and existing transportation vetting systems to conduct applicant threat assessments. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals or lawful permanent residents, and cannot have been convicted of certain crimes.”

List Sources of Pre-Screened Passengers
The various PreTM lists, the numbers on each, and a description of eligible participants for each list is contained in a table provided by the GAO, included here.  It must be asked whether some of the categories are not sufficiently broad that someone with nefarious purposes could on occasion qualify, say by being in the military—a distinct possibility as demonstrated at Fort Hood in 2009—or by being a frequent flier. 

Secure Flight Program

Under the Secure Flight Program, TSA matches information on every passenger against watchlists, such as the No Fly and Selectee Lists, to check for matches.  TSA then directs the carrier to mark a passenger’s boarding pass for enhanced, expedited, or standard screening, or to prohibit the passenger from boarding.  Passengers designated as low risk are advised by TSA that they are eligible for expedited screening, which also directs the carrier to mark the boarding pass of such a passenger with the PreTM designation.  (The regulations that apply to the Secure Flight Program are contained 49 CFR Part 1560.  The GAO has reviewed the Secure Flight Program in several contexts, but see particularly its September 2014 report: Secure Flight: TSA Should Take Additional Steps to Determine Program Effectiveness, GAO-14-531.)

Passengers with the PreTM designation use expedited lanes at some airports and will not have to remove shoes and light outerwear or remove laptops, liquids, and gels from luggage.  If dedicated lanes are not available at an airport because of configuration or passenger levels, such passengers will have to remove liquids, gels, and laptops for the efficiency of screening operations in non-dedicated lanes. The 118 airports with dedicated pre-screening lanes are marked on the map below.  Although TSA operations cover about 450 airports, these 118 airports represent around 95% of enplanements.  

Airports with Pre-Screening Lanes
Managed Inclusion

In November 2012, TSA began a Managed Inclusion system designed to assess passengers who are not on participating or eligible for the PreTM program but who will nevertheless be moved to a pre-screened lane for expedited screening.  The assessment involves a layered approach including randomization procedures, behavior detection officers (BDOs), and either explosives detection canines or explosives trace detection (ETD) devices.  As to how the randomization procedure works, the GAO explains: 

“When passengers approach a security checkpoint that is operating Managed Inclusion, they approach a TSO [Transportation Security Officer] who is holding a randomizer device, typically an iPad that directs the passenger to the expedited or standard screening lane.” 

Behavior detection officers are to look for certain behaviors that indicate a passenger may be a higher risk and keep such a passenger in a standard screening lane.  The GAO reviewed the analytics used by TSA’s behavior detection officers in a report issued in May 2010: Aviation Security: Efforts to Validate TSA’s Passenger Screening Behavior Detection Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Validation and Address Operational Challenges, GAO-10-763.  In the current report, the GAO summarizes its doubts about behavior detection procedures as follows:

“TSA has not demonstrated that BDOs can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat to the U.S. aviation system. In our 2013 report, we recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the TSA Administrator to limit future funding support for the agency’s behavior detection activities until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence that demonstrates that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security. The Department of Homeland Security did not concur with this recommendation; however, in August 2014, TSA noted that it is taking actions to optimize the effectiveness of its behavior detection program and plans to begin testing this effort in October 2014.”

It can be expected, therefore, that more GAO reports will concern TSA’s behavior detection efforts.  In addition to the behavioral assessment, a passenger in an expedited lane may pass a bomb dog team or an explosives trace detection device. As to when a passenger might encounter various components of the Managed Inclusion Program, the GAO provides a sort of generic floor plan distinguishing between the paths at a security gate of pre-screened passengers, passengers moved to expedited screening under the Managed Inclusion process, and all other passengers. 

Queues for Going Through Security

The GAO provides specific details about canine teams:

“TSA uses canine teams and ETD devices at airports as an additional layer of security when Managed Inclusion is operational to determine whether passengers may have interacted with explosives prior to arriving at the airport. In airports with canine teams, passengers must walk past a canine and its handler in an environment where the canine is trained to detect explosive odors and to alert the handler when a passenger has any trace of explosives on his or her person. For example, passengers in the Managed Inclusion lane may be directed to walk from the travel document checker through the passageway and past the canine teams to reach the X-ray belt and the walk-through metal detector. According to TSA documents, the canines, when combined with the other layers of security in the Managed Inclusion process provide effective security.”

As we discussed in a prior blog, it should not be assumed that anything missed in the security lanes will be caught by canine teams roaming around open areas either before or after the security gates. Two GAO reports (GAO-13-329 and GAO-14-695T) were skeptical about the effectiveness of passenger screening canine (PSC) teams and GAO posted the video below of a PSC team misidentifying the passenger with explosives odor in a test conducted at an airport.   

Nor should it be assumed that checked baggage is being looked at more carefully.  In a memo issued in September 2014 (OIG-14-142), the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security stated: 

"We [the Inspector General's staff] identified vulnerabilities ... caused by human and technology-based failures.  We also determined that TSA does not have a process in place to assess or identify the cause for equipment-based test failures or the capability to independently assess whether deployed explosive detection systems are operating at the correct detection standards.  The compilation of the number of tests conducted, the names of  airports tested, and test results are classified, or designated as Sensitive Security Information.  According to TSA, the component [presumably some subdivision of TSA] spent $540 million for checke baggage screening equipment and $11 million for training since 2009.  Despite that investment, TSA has not improved checked baggage screening since our last report in 2009."  

It has been over four years since we wrote a blog about explosives detection for checked baggage. The GAO should be looking into that issue as well.   


GAO notes that “Managed Inclusion passengers are more likely than other passengers to be screened for explosives.” My cousin's experience was apparently not unique. This is disturbing, given that a passenger going through ordinary screening is thus less likely to get near a dog or a device designed to detect explosives.  A terrorist carrying a new type of explosive might increase his chance of success by not being selected for an expedited screening, particularly if the components of an explosive can be made to look harmless enough for a physical inspection. GAO says that "TSA has conducted work to assess canine teams and to ensure that they meet the security effectiveness thresholds TSA established for working in the Managed Inclusion lane...."  GAO has not merely accepted TSA's word about the effectiveness of canine teams, as it did not regarding TSA's claims for the free-roaming PSC teams, and it must be hoped they will have some of their own investigators perform underground work here. 

An overall analysis of the effectiveness of screening should take the configuration of security lanes into account. It must also be hoped that GAO is continuing to test the effectiveness of other canine deployments at airports. The National Explosives Detection Canine Program is slated to get nearly $130 million under the 2015 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Canine teams must be effective to justify that kind of price tag. 

This blog was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment