Ten years ago the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adopted a new concept for aviation security in the United States when it started the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) Program, through the training and deployment of Behaviour Detection Officers (BDO). The theory behind the TSA implementing BDOs is that these officers are not watching the checkpoints in the same manner other Transportation Security Officers (TSO) are, the BDOs are scanning the crowds watching body language, “micro facial movements,” interactions and playing the game of “which one of these does not belong.”
Two weeks ago Paul Ciancia walked into Los Angeles International Airport’s (LAX) Terminal 3, a major international hub airport, with a duffle bag concealing a Smith & Wesson .223 caliber M&P 15 rifle and the sole goal of killing employees of the Transportation Security Administration. LAX’s Terminal 3 is a busy terminal, a terminal with multiple BDOs around the TSA passenger checkpoints, but somehow as Mr. Ciancia lingered for moments, scoping out the terminal, setting eyes on uniformed TSA employees no one noticed.
Not one TSA BDO noticed or reacted to the man acting unusually in the terminal. Not one TSA BDO noticed the man locking eyes on them with the intent to kill them. Not one TSA BDO recognized the facial expressions of a man scoping out targets. Not one TSA BDO noticed the man who stood out.
Not one TSA BDO noticed the warning signs as Mr. Ciancia removed the full-sized rifle from his bag, approach the Travel Document Checker (TDC) area of the check point, then shot and killed Behaviour Detection Officer Gerardo I. Hernandez at point blank range, going on to wound BDO Tony Grigsby and Security Training Instructor (STI) James Speer.
When the TSA developed the Behaviour Detection Officer training it was based in part on the training utilized by Customs and Border Protection Officers, at the time the U.S. Customs Service, that reported an effective increase in their detection of illegal narcotics from 4.2% to 22.5% through these tactics. The TSA’s program was created by Dr. Paul Ekman PhD, of the University of California Medical School, who had taught behavioral analysis to the U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (now combined as U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as worked with Pixar animators on developing realistic animated character expressions.
Despite the TSA’s best intentions and Dr. Ekman’s experience the Behaviour Detection Officer program is flawed, and despite its substantial budget, which should approximately total US$1,200,000,000 by the end of 2015, it is a failure. There are substantial differences in what TSA BDOs are taught vs what Federal Law Enforcement Agents are taught.
The current training for a Behaviour Detection Officer is minimal, a mere four days of classroom instruction focused on the analysis of behavioural observation and a further 24 hours of in the field training. That’s right, a total of 56 hours of training and a TSA Transportation Security Officer has achieved the title of Behaviour Detection Officer. By comparison, those security officers engaged in passenger profiling, based on exhibited behaviours, at airports in Israel typically have more than a year of training … yes a year or more of training vs. 56 hours.
While the TSA has 30 BDO instructors and states selection to become a BDO is rigorous and selective … the program which the agency says is rooted in the science of behavioural analysis in reality has no scientific basis.
In May of 2010 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the TSA “had deployed its behavior detection program (referred to as “SPOT”) without first validating the scientific basis for identifying passengers who may pose a security risk in an airport environment.”
Along with the GAO determining the TSA’s BDO program was deployed without validating any scientific basis for implementation, the National Academy of Sciences has also reported “a scientific consensus did not exist on whether behavior detection principles could be reliably used for counterterrorism purposes. Specifically, the study noted that the scientific support for linkages between behavioral and physiological markers and mental state was nonexistent for highly complex states, such as when individuals hold terrorist intent and beliefs.”
The TSA has continual shown reports of the effectiveness of BDOs, but historically the BDO program has missed opportunities to prove its merit time and time again.
Over the past few years multiple reports within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. GAO have shown a staggering 17 known terrorism suspects have passed through checkpoints staffed by BDOs at eight airports, on at least 24 different occasions. Records show that of these 24 separate occasions not one of known terrorist suspects was stopped by BDOs and referred for secondary screening or an interview by law enforcement.
The most startling lapse by TSA BDOs occurred on the 3rd of May 2010 at New York’s JFK International Airport’s Terminal 4, only 53 hours after Faisal Shahzad had attempted to detonate a Nissan Pathfinder loaded with explosives in New York City’s Times Square, and just a few hours after he was publicly identified as the primary suspect in the attempted terrorist attack on New York City. With every law enforcement agency in the United States searching for Shahzad he picked up a ticket at the Emirates counter for Flight 202 to Dubai and passed through the TSA screening checkpoint, in a terminal with multiple BDOs on duty.
Shahzad was fleeing the United States; at the time he passed through security he knew he was the primary suspect and that he was a wanted man. His behaviours must have shown signs of stress, his ‘micro facial expressions’ must have given off signals that he was someone who should be selected for a quick conversation and possibly an identification check … but no … we only got lucky catching Shahzad, which I detailed here a few hours after the incident came to a close – Law Enforcement Got Lucky (Yes Lucky) Catching Terrorist Suspect On A Plane.
Following the tragic incident at Los Angeles International Airport on the 1st of November will the Transportation Security Administration finally overhaul or concede that the Behaviour Detection Officer program is not working, as it should?
The TSA proudly announces how BDOs aid in law enforcement, but what will it take for the agency to choose a new path rather than continue to push forward with an experiment that offers no true benefit to aviation security? Because let’s not forget, the job of the TSA’s Transportation Security Officers is not that of law enforcement, their mission is “Protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”
What happens next? I don’t think even the TSA knows.