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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Are TSA’s Screening Processes Working as Well as They Might? GAO Investigates

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began identifying passengers who are not known or suspected terrorists, after the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb on Christmas day while on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Now, passengers are identified for enhanced screening through the application of screening rules, which TSA develops by considering current intelligence and other factors. TSA refers to these rules and lists as Silent Partner and Quiet Skies. Silent Partner rules identify passengers for enhanced screening on inbound flights to the United States. Quiet Skies rules—a subset of the Silent Partner rules—identify passengers for enhanced screening on subsequent domestic and outbound flights.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reviewed the current oversight mechanisms and effectiveness of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies, and found that TSA lacked criteria for using a more streamlined screening process, which it frequently deploys. The Secure Flight system is subject to screening measures for high risk passengers, but also randomly identifies passengers for enhanced screening.

TSA’s Intelligence and Analysis office (I&A) coordinates quarterly rule reviews of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies and notifies Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA stakeholders of rule changes. According to GAO’s November 20 report, stakeholders feel these review processes provide a good mechanism for program oversight.

Since October 2018, TSA I&A has also included representatives of DHS’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program and the Federal Air Marshal Service in these quarterly review meetings, as required by the TSA Modernization Act. Officials from these offices told GAO in August 2019 that they are still determining their role in the rule review process, but expect the coordination to be beneficial.

TSA has established guidance for rule changes that involve TSA stakeholders reviewing rules in advance of their implementation. In some instances, TSA uses an alternate process, allowed by guidance in exigent circumstances, where rule changes go into effect before some stakeholders review them. However, agency guidance does not define the conditions for using the standard or exigent processes. GAO also found that TSA officials do not document which review process—standard or exigent—they use for each rule change. TSA I&A officials told the GAO review that exigent circumstances were very rare. They estimated that in the last three years exigent circumstances had occurred only once.

GAO’s report noted that “TSA tracks some data on rule implementation, but has not identified a means to comprehensively measure rule effectiveness”. TSA officials explained that they had not yet fully assessed the rules’ effectiveness because it was difficult to measure.

TSA officials told GAO that the one method they had used to assess effectiveness was to count Quiet Skies passengers who were later added to the government’s watchlist of known or suspected terrorists. However, because this analysis was limited to Quiet Skies, it excluded 93 percent of the screening rules, making it difficult to interpret what the results indicate about effectiveness.

It is fair to say that assessing the effectiveness of the rules is difficult, but TSA does have tools in hand to help with this. For example, I&A could explore analyzing TSA data on the outcomes of the enhanced screening of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies passengers at passenger security checkpoints. CBP officials regularly review secondary inspection results to help them assess CBP’s rules-based program. GAO’s report noted that I&A officials were considering this measure and would need to determine what comparison group would make sense, and if they want to focus on specific screening outcomes versus all outcomes.

GAO says TSA I&A could also consider using the results of air marshals’ monitoring of Quiet Skies passengers.  The service—with a budget of approximately $780 million for fiscal year 2019—began deploying air marshals on as many flights as possible with Quiet Skies passengers in March 2018. After air marshals complete a flight with a Quiet Skies List match, they file a report saying either “nothing to report” or, if they observe that the individual was involved in a security incident or suspicious activity, they will describe this in an after-action report. If regularly reviewed, such reports to help TSA gauge program effectiveness.

DHS has concurred with the three recommendations made in GAO’s November 20 report. These are: clarify the criteria for exigent circumstances and standard rule review procedures; document which rule review process TSA I&A uses (exigent or standard) for each new rule or rule change; and explore additional data sources measuring the effectiveness of Silent Partner and Quiet Skies rules.

DHS says TSA I&A will explore the use of additional data sources by the end of December 2020 and work to meet the other two recommendations by January 31, 2020.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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