​Excessive yawners, beware! Leaked TSA document reveals list of suspicious airport behavior

Reuters / Andrew Burton
Arriving late to a flight with a confused look on your face and sweaty palms is enough to arouse suspicion among airport security screeners, according to an internal Transportation Security Administration document released by The Intercept.

On Friday, the online publication released a 92-point checklist that the TSA has reportedly used to determine if air travel passengers might pose a potential risk if allowed to board flights departing from United States airports.

The two-page document is not top-secret, but does contain an itemized, never-before-published list of traits and characteristics that TSA agents are trained to look for in accordance with the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or SPOT, initiated by the agency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Each entry on the checklist is allocated a specific amount of “points,” and TSA agents are advised to refer travelers that accumulate enough to surpass certain thresholds.

A passenger who “arrives late for flight,” “avoids eye contact with security,” exhibits “exaggerated yawning” or appears to look pale from a recent beard shaving is allocated one point for each of those 'Stress Factors' on the SPOT Referral Report published by The Intercept. Four points is enough to refer a person for additional screening.

If combined with an “obvious ‘Adam’s Apple’ jump” and excessive sweating, a passenger garners six points and should be referred to the police.

'Fear Factors' that are valued at two points each include “widely open staring eyes,” a “cold penetrating stare” and a noticeable “contempt for the screening process.”

'Deception Factors,' including appearing to be confused or in disguise, are valued at three points each. Displaying any two would elevate a passenger to a score of six – enough to be referred for selective screening and prompt law enforcement to be notified, according to the report.

When approached by The Intercept for comment, a spokesperson for the TSA declined to comment specifically on the leaked report but said that behavior detention is just one of many efforts undertaken by the agency that’s vital to its goal of deterring, detecting and disrupting “individuals who pose a threat to aviation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the TSA just last week in an effort to obtain records on the SPOT program, according to The Intercept, after Freedom of Information Act requests for relevant documents went ignored.

What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling and should be scrapped,” Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement last week. “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.”

According to The Intercept, the SPOT checklist published by the website this week was provided “by a source concerned about the quality of the program.” A separate source, identified only as a former TSA Behavior Detection Officer, said some of the criteria contained on the list “are ridiculous,” and amount to giving the TSA “a license to harass” passengers.

“The SPOT program is bulls**t,” a BDO manager added to The Intercept. “Complete bulls**t.”

Sentiments like that echo the findings contained in a May 2010 US Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report which raised questions about the supposed science involved in determining who is and isn’t suspicious. At the time, the GAO determined that, as of May 2010, the SPOT data was “not reliable enough to conduct a statistical analysis of the association between the indicators and high-risk passenger outcomes.”

“In May 2010, we recommended that TSA make changes to ensure the quality of SPOT referral data, and TSA subsequently made changes to the SPOT database,” according to the report. It’s unclear what has changed since, however, since the document published by The Intercept is dated February 2009.

Earlier this month, the president of the workers union that represents TSA employees renewed calls to have additional armed police in US airports in the wake of a violent altercation in New Orleans.