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Illustration by Michael Austin

Precheck Problems

​In June of last year, a traveler entered a U.S. airport, got his boarding pass, and headed to the security checkpoint. A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer took the man’s travel and identity documents and noticed that the boarding pass said the traveler was eligible for TSA PreCheck, an expedited screening process. This is not unusual—various TSA programs allow low-risk travelers to go through the PreCheck line where they need not remove their jackets, belts, or shoes. However, in this case, the officer immediately went to his supervisor because the man who was approved for expedited screening happened to be a “notorious felon,” a former member of a domestic terrorist group who had been released from a multiple-year sentence in prison. (The identity of the felon was not publicly disclosed.)

According to TSA screening checkpoint operating procedures, TSA officers may increase the level of screening a passenger receives based on an articulable belief. That’s exactly what the TSA officer did when he recognized the felon. However, the officer’s supervisor told him to take no further action, and the felon was allowed to proceed through the PreCheck line, where he was able to leave on his shoes and belt and walk through a metal detector instead of a body scanner.

This vulnerability was reported by a whistleblower, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) opened an investigation into the incident. The subsequent report, titled Allegation of Granting Expedited Screening through TSA PreCheck Improperly, recommended that the agency redefine how passengers are granted on-the-spot expedited screening, as well as modify its operating procedures to clarify the roles of security officers and their supervisors. The OIG also released a classified report to the TSA that further details the need to modify the PreCheck processes.

The incident is just the latest red flag for the TSA’s numerous risk-based screening programs, which are intended to strengthen security and improve the passenger experience, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the program. 

TSA’s Managed Inclusion program is also under the microscope. A December 2014 GAO report, Rapid Growth in Expedited Passenger Screening Highlights Need to Plan Effective Security Assessments, noted that Managed Inclusion has not been tested by the TSA for overall security effectiveness. The program, according to the GAO, “involves using real-time threat assessment methods, including randomization procedures and behavior detection officers, as well as either canine teams or explosives trace detection devices to screen non-TSA PreCheck Passengers in lanes that are otherwise dedicated to PreCheck passengers.”

Questions have been raised about the accuracy of behavior detection programs used in airports—government research studies have found that the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance, at 54 percent. And in March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit demanding that the TSA hand over documents related to the behavior detection program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT). The ACLU requested information regarding SPOT’s effectiveness, its impact on minorities, and its scientific underpinnings. 

“What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling, and should be scrapped,” said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a press release. “The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the agency can’t hide the fact that there’s no evidence the program works.”

On March 25, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transpor-tation Security met to hear testimony from officials on the risk-assessment programs employed at the nation’s airports. TSA Chief Risk Officer Ken Fletcher explained that Managed Inclusion is just part of a “multilayered, risk-based” approach to targeted airport security that bolsters the PreCheck program.

Started in 2011, the PreCheck program “was one of the first initiatives in TSA’s shift toward a risk-based and intelligence-driven approach to security,” Fletcher told committee members. The program initially targeted certain low-risk passengers, such as active members of the military and U.S. Department of Defense employees, but was eventually opened to the public, allowing U.S. citizens to apply for PreCheck and benefit from expedited airport security procedures.

TSA uses its Secure Flight system to match every passenger’s identifying information against No Fly, terrorist, and other similar watch lists up to 72 hours before the passenger’s flight. If a PreCheck-approved passenger is cleared, the airline will mark that person’s boarding pass for expedited screening, according to the GAO report. The agency also uses the same process on low-risk populations who are not members of PreCheck to hasten passenger movement through airports—that’s how the convicted felon was able to go through expedited screening.

TSA has been vocal about aiming to provide expedited screening to the majority of the traveling public, and it is well on its way to achieving that goal: the percentage of passengers receiving some form of expedited screening increased from 9.6 percent in September 2013 to 50 percent by November 2014, Fletcher said. The GAO report notes that this was accomplished in part by expanding the Managed Inclusion program.

The on-the-spot, risk-based issuance of PreCheck status—both in the form of approving fliers by checking the watch lists and through Managed Inclusion—raises questions on what “low-risk” actually means. In response to the OIG’s report on the convicted felon incident, the TSA noted that “had the intelligence or national law enforcement communities felt that this traveler posed an elevated risk to commercial aviation, they would have…prevented the traveler from being designated as lower-risk.”

However, the OIG report went on to point out a paradox in the PreCheck system: had the felon formally applied for a PreCheck membership, he would have been denied due to his conviction. But since the felon never applied to the program and was not watchlisted, he was granted PreCheck status at the airport. “As a concept, TSA PreCheck is a positive step towards risk-based security screening,” the OIG report states. “However, TSA needs to modify TSA PreCheck vetting and screening processes.”

John Roth, the DHS Inspector General, said during the March hearing that the felon was granted PreCheck screening through risk assessment rules, not the application program. He also voiced concerns about the TSA’s response to OIG reports on the program—in one report, 17 recommendations were made, and the TSA did not accept the majority of them, he noted. 

“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,” Roth said. 

Jennifer Grover, the director of the Homeland Security and Justice Division of the GAO, agreed that TSA has been “nonresponsive” to the various reports on the PreCheck program. “We recommended that the secretary of Homeland Security…limit future funding support for the agency’s behavior detection activities until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence. The DHS did not concur with this recommendation.” 

TSA’s Fletcher said that the agency is working with the DHS Office of Policy as well as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to establish a common definition for identifying “lower-risk” travelers. In the meantime, Fletcher said the TSA will continue to meet its goal of providing expedited screening to a majority of travelers by enrolling more low-risk populations in PreCheck. In addition, it will expand participation to other U.S. and foreign airlines.

“TSA will continue to focus on applying our risk-based security approaches to other aspects of transportation security,” Fletcher said.