Lawmakers peppered the head of the Transportation Security Administration with questions Thursday about a screening program that government audits say is little better than random chance.
TSA Administrator John Pistole told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation that the program to spot suspicious behavior is a key part of protecting aviation security because it looks for a traveler's intent rather than just items.
"Defunding the program is not the answer," Pistole said. "If Congress did that, what I envision is there would be fewer passengers going through expedited screening, increased pat-downs, longer lines. There would be more frustration with the traveling public."
Several lawmakers asked Pistole, and representatives of the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, whether the behavior program known as Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) involved racial profiling.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said the behavior program isn't viable. "I do believe that it is profiling," Waters said.
Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., noted that a Newark manager gave inappropriate directions for profiling and made racial comments before being fired.
"What degree of confidence do you have that other (behavior-detection) managers aren't encouraging or directing racial profiling through the SPOT program?" Payne asked.
Pistole said "profiling has absolutely no place" in behavior detection, and allegations of profiling would be investigated thoroughly.
"It's not good law enforcement. It's not good security work, from our perspective. And It's not constitutional," Pistole said. "Anybody who is found to be profiling will be investigated and dealt with appropriately."
Stephen Lord, managing director of forensic audits at GAO, said there weren't indications of profiling. Charles Edwards, deputy inspector general, said without going into detail that an investigation of a complaint at Boston's Logan airport found profiling based on appearance rather than race.
SPOT costs about $200 million per year to field 3,000 behavior-detection officers, according to a GAO study released with the hearing.
The GAO recommended limiting funding for the program after reviewed 400 studies over 60 years that found people are only slightly better than chance at spotting deceptive behavior.
TSA is working to better substantiate why the program is valuable, although results aren't expected for three years.
In 2012, behavior-detection officers referred passengers to law-enforcement officers 2,116 times which resulted in 183 arrests, 79 investigations and 30 passengers being denied boarding, Pistole said.