TSA behavior detection officers’ ability to detect bad actors little better than chance, GAO study says

A federal study that looked at hundreds of studies on identifying signs of deception concluded that behavior detection officers like those employed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport fare no better or only slightly better than anyone else in accurately picking up cues. (Lynn Ischay/The Plain Dealer)

Plain Dealer | Nov 23, 2013

By Alison Grant

CLEVELAND, Ohio — On the eve of the busiest travel days of the year, a new report says the ability of behavior detection officers at airports to accurately identify a passenger with malicious intent is no better or only slightly better than chance.

The Transportation Security Administration has spent $900 million since 2007 to train and deploy guards at security checkpoints to observe whether passengers exhibit signs of fear, stress and deception and may be a risk. It has 3,000 behavior detection officers at airports nationwide, including at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

But a new government analysis of findings from over 400 studies conducted over the past 60 years, and interviews with experts in the field, calls into question whether checkpoint officers can reliably spot dangerous passengers by discerning suspect behaviors and catching verbal cues.

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“The ability of humans to accurately identify deception based on behaviors is the same, roughly — essentially the same as chance — slightly greater than chance — 54 percent,” Stephen Lord, director of the Office of Homeland Security, said in testimony last Thursday   before a House subcommittee.

TSA Administrator John Pistole, in written testimony to the same committee, defended the use of behavior detection officers. He said looking for anomalous behavior is a common-sense approach used by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Terrorists have used underwear, shoe and toner-cartridge bombs, and liquid explosives, Pistole said, but they all have in common the malicious intent of an actor.

“Since we cannot always predict the form evolving threats will take, (behavior detection officers) provide a crucial layer of security,” Pistole said.

In 2012 alone, the specially-trained officers made 2,116 referrals to law enforcement, resulting in 30 boarding denials, 79 investigations by law enforcement groups and 183 arrests, he said.

The manager in charge of TSA operations at Hopkins referred a call to the agency’s Washington headquarters. There, spokesman Ross Feinstein confirmed only that there were behavior detection officers at the Cleveland airport. For security reasons, TSA doesn’t release details such as how many officers it has stationed at security lanes.

“Behavior detection is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation,” Feinstein said.

Rob Kneen, president and CEO of the Traveline agency in Willoughby, said behavior detection officers are a valuable addition to measures such as TSA’s PreCheck program, which lets pre-approved travelers move more quickly through security.

“I look at it at the very minimum as a great supplemental support,” Kneen said.

Douglas Laird, president of Laird and Associates, an aviation security firm based in Nevada, said behavior detection has potential. Some people are very intuitive and can look at a crowd and pick out someone who poses a threat, said Laird,  a former Secret Service agent and chief of security for Northwest Airlines.

The problem with airport behavior detection officers, he said — inadequate training.

“To even have a hope of being successful, I think you’re looking at several hundreds of hours of training and lots of observation,” Laird said.

TSA said officers in the SPOT program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique) get four days of classroom instruction in behavior observation and analysis and 24 hours of on-the-job training in an airport environment. TSA has about 30 behavior detection instructors, each with significant experience and rigorous training, the agency said.

The author of a recent book on aviation security and profiling, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor Richard Bloom, agreed with the GAO conclusion that there is insufficient validated research to support behavior detection as TSA has implemented it.


Bloom likened the debate over behavior detection at airports to the controversy over  polygraph tests. A huge “meta-analysis” of numerous studies in the 1980s and a similar examination a decade ago cast doubt on the reliability of lie detector tests, he said.

“Yet they continue to be used, especially for security clearances,” Bloom said. “The real issue is, can you find verbal or nonverbal characteristics that are associated with a state of mind? The answer to that, at least at the moment, is no.”

In his book “Foundations of Psychological Profiling: Terrorism, Espionage and Deception,” published earlier this year, Bloom says that lacking hard proof that behavior detection works, it might help to think in terms of techniques used to interpret literature, poetry and philosophy.

“Maybe we can look at how we get meaning from other information,” Bloom said, “and putting that together can lead to conclusions about the intent of a person.”

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