Jan. 25, 2011 — -- A $212-million federal program designed to spot suspected terrorists at American airports is "not capable of detecting what took place in Moscow," according to the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida.
The program, called SPOT, was created in 2006 by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and now has more than 3,000 "Behavior Detection" officers at 161 airports. The officers receive four days of classroom instruction on how to spot certain unusual behaviors.
But the Government Accountability Office says the TSA has relied on unproven behavioral science and Congressional critics say the program has done nothing to deal with the actual vulnerabilities of airport security.
"I see the classified results and it gives me great concern, I saw what happened [in Moscow] and I have even more concern," Rep. Mica said today on the ABC News program Good Morning America.
The suicide bomb attack at the Moscow airport highlighted a physical vulnerability long recognized by both security officials and terrorists.
"Every airport in the world, including every airport in the United States, has virtually no security until you get to the security checkpoint," said Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant and former White House counter-terrorism official.
"Very large parts of all airports are inherently insecure."
The Moscow attack took place at an arrivals area of the airport where there are no security checkpoints.
The TSA says its SPOT program is a "vital layer that enhances security at the nation's airports."
But the GAO found, in a May, 2010 report, that at least 17 known terrorists traveled through at least 23 U.S. airports in the SPOT program without being detected.
The TSA says the program has resulted in 1,700 arrests although none on charges of terrorism.
"Right now, I don't believe SPOT gives us the protection that we should have," said Congressman Mica, who blamed a "bloated, inefficient TSA bureaucracy" for the problem.
The SPOT program is based in large part on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, a retired psychology professor at the University of California, who devised a system that identifies facial "micro-expressions" and body movements that are out of the ordinary.
"Micro-expressions, the wonderful thing about them, is they're universal," Dr. Ekman told ABC News. "There are seven different emotions and it doesn't matter your language or your culture, if you have one of those emotions it is going to appear in your face and if you're trying to conceal it, it may well leak out in a micro-expression."
Other behavioral science experts are skeptical.
"The scientific research shows that it's very hard to detect whether somebody's up to no good just by looking at their behavior," said Dr. Maria Hartwig, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an expert in the psychology of deception and its detection.
The TSA says the SPOT program is based "in science" used by law enforcement and the military "for decades."
Dr. Hartwig said there is no such credible, peer-reviewed science.
"There is no scientific support for this system as of now," said Dr. Hartwig.
Dr. Ekman said any problems with SPOT are the result of a lack of funding, which limits the number of officers and the length of training.
"Instead of four days, I would like to have several months for training," Ekman told ABC News.
Ekman also responded to the GAO's questions about the scientific validity of his research by saying "a lot of results are not yet published," and that while the GAO's report had "merit," "it was more critical than it had to be."