GAO Report: TSA Missed 16 Terrorists Between 2004-2008

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A new government report says at least 16 known terrorists have passed through U.S. airports where federal officials were trained to spot suspicious behavior.

The Government Accountability Office report says that between May 2004 and August 2008, behavior detection officers who work for the Transportation Security Administration made about 1,100 arrests. None were for terrorism.

Florida Republican Rep. John Mica says behavior detection officers were working at New York’s Kennedy airport when the Times Square bomb suspect passed through airport security undetected.

The program is designed to spot terrorists and others who pose a threat to aviation. The behavior detection program is one of 20 layers in the nation’s aviation security.

……the cases included that of Najibullah Zazi, a Denver shuttle driver who authorities said plotted to set off bombs in New York City’s subway system. Zazi pleaded guilty to providing material support to al Qaeda.

The officials said the TSA also missed David Headley, who pleaded guilty to scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai, India, terror attacks and flew out of the U.S. to do his reconnaissance.


Pages 46-48 of the GAO Report: GAO-10-763 Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.

Studying airport video recordings of the behaviors exhibited by persons waiting in line and moving through airport checkpoints and who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses could provide insights about behaviors that may be common among terrorists or could demonstrate that terrorists do not generally display any identifying behaviors. TSA officials agreed that examining video recordings of individuals who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses, as they used the aviation system to travel to overseas locations allegedly to receive terrorist training or to execute attacks, may help inform the SPOT program’s identification of behavioral indicators. In addition, such images could help determine if BDOs are looking for the right behaviors or seeing the behaviors they have been trained to observe.

Using CBP and Department of Justice information, we examined the travel of key individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots that have been uncovered by law enforcement agencies.
We determined that at least 16 of the individuals allegedly involved in these plots moved through 8 different airports where the SPOT program had been implemented.

Six of the 8 airports were among the 10 highest risk airports, as rated by TSA in its Current Airport Threat Assessment. In total, these individuals moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions. For example, according to Department of Justice documents, in December 2007 an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Somali terrorists boarded a plane at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport en route to Somalia to join terrorists there and engage in jihad. Similarly, in August 2008 an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Al-Qaeda boarded a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport en route to Pakistan to receive terrorist training to support his efforts to attack the New York subway system.

Our survey of Federal Security Directors at 161 SPOT airports indicated most checkpoints at SPOT airports have surveillance cameras installed. As we previously reported, best practices for project management call for conducting feasibility studies to assess issues related to technical and economic feasibility, among other things.

In addition, Standards for Internal Control state that effectively using available resources is one element of functioning internal controls. TSA may be able to utilize the installed video infrastructure at the nation’s airports to study the behavior of persons who were later charged with or pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses, and determine whether BDOs saw the behaviors. The Director of Special Operations in TSA’s Office of Inspection told us that video recordings could be used as a teaching tool to show the BDOs which behaviors or activities they did or did not observe. In addition, TSA indicated that although the airports may have cameras at the security screening checkpoints, the cameras are not owned by TSA, and in many cases, they are not accessible to TSA. However, TSA officials lack information on the scope of these potential limitations because prior to our work TSA did not have information on the number of checkpoints equipped with video surveillance. We obtained this information as part of our survey of Federal Security Directors at SPOT airports. While TSA officials noted several possible limitations of the use of the existing video surveillance equipment, these images provide TSA a means of acquiring information about terrorist behaviors in the checkpoint environment that is not available elsewhere. If current research determines that the SPOT program has a scientifically validated basis for using behavior detection for counterterrorism purposes in the airport environment, then conducting a study to determine the feasibility of using images captured by video cameras could better position TSA in identifying behaviors to observe.

Full GAO Report:

The only reason they know of those 16 terrorists is because they were caught once they got in and plead guilty to terrorist activites. Gawd only knows how many more snuck in under the radar.
Video surveilleance and behavior observation should be only two applied techniques. Scrutinizing muslim/Middle Eastern/male passengers traveling to and from anywhere in the Middle East should be at or near the top of the list.

Not long after the inception of the TSA, an Israeli security expert stated: “We have a system for detecting terrorists. You have a system for annoying people.”

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