Two recent Transportation Security Administration programs that raised eyebrows in the travel community were scuttled last week. The two contentious programs centered on allowing small knives onboard planes and the intrusive “behavioral detection” program. This last one allowed TSA agents to profile travelers. Both programs were deemed too invasive for the American public.
The US Transportation Security Administration caught flak from two directions yesterday, and two controversial programs took direct hits.

Just hours before a vote in the House of Representatives, the TSA pulled its ill-advised proposal to allow small knives on planes.

On the same day, Homeland Security issued a report saying TSA's program under which agents pick out passengers for further screening fails to meet basic standards of objectivity.

TSA has hired more than 3,000 agents to conduct "behavioral detection," a system perfected by the Israelis in which agents watch and chat up passengers on line, trying to pick out clues that would suggest they are security risks.

Of the 650 million passengers who went through airports in fiscal 2011, the US behavioral detection program referred 2,214 to law enforcement, producing 199 arrests for outstanding warrants, suspected drug possession, or being illegal immigrants.

The report from Homeland Security's inspector general found no evidence that agents are exercising good judgment in deciding which travelers to screen, or that the program is cost- effective.

The inspector general recommended that TSA do a better job collecting data on who's getting screened, provide better training for officers, and come up with a way to judge whether instructors are doing a good job.

In his official response to the audit, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program "is effective and has been validated and determined to identify substantially more high-risk travelers than a random screening protocol." It is nine times more likely to identify a high-risk traveler than random screening.

The audit report came on the same day that TSA agreed to abandon its controversial plan to allow passengers to carry small knives, golf clubs, and other sports equipment onto planes.

"Only an act of Congress will stop knives on aircraft," Pistole had said, in the face of fierce opposition by major airlines, pilots, flight attendants, TSA agents, and Congress itself. But in the end he did not quite wait for a vote to take place.

Two weeks ago, 140 Congressmen officially asked Pistole to keep the current rules in place, and a vote in the House of Representatives was set for last night.

"This is a victory for every single person who sets foot on a plane, and a reaffirmation that the government listens to the people," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who had co-sponsored the amendment. "The bi-partisan effort to stop this rule change, and the grassroots movement among pilots, flight attendants, law enforcement and TSA screeners, was successful because this rule change was wrong from the start."

By Cheryl Rosen