Are TSA Behavior Detection Officers Effective? No …

Before I delve into this post, I must first say that I am in favour of passenger profiling and the use of human security assets to detect those who may be a risk to the flight they’ll be boarding.  While my research has lead me to the opinion that human security assets are effective … I have however also stated more than once that the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) need to incorporate a different tactic, procedure and training regiment to make the their human security assets program effective.

While this topic has been discussed before by politicians, media outlets and security experts … it is a topic that needs to be brought up again given the significant funding intended to be injected into the program over the next five years … so here we go …

In 2003 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began training Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) in Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), with the ‘current evolution’ of the BDO SPOT program being launched in 2007. The cost of the TSA BDO program since its full scale roll out in 2007 has been an estimated USUS$383,000,000, for the training and deployment of an estimated 3,000 BDOs at approximately 160 airports … or roughly US$127,666 per BDO (not including their salary).

As the TSA moved forward with the BDO program,  the agency is expected to increase the BDO program budget by 10% to US$232,000,000 this year and spend potentially US$1,200,000,000 over the next five years.

If the TSA’s BDO program had any successes the allocation of funds to continue the BDO program would be justified … however … currently the TSA’s program has to address some critical issues.  The top of the list for these critical issues are US Government Accountability Office (US GAO) reports that has states there is no evidence that the BDO SPOT program works or has any empirical data showing that the current program can be effective.

According to US GAO documents, during the period between May 2004 and August 2008 an estimated 2,000,000,000 travelers passed through airport checkpoints where TSA BDOs’ trained in SPOTting are stationed. During this time frame the TSA reported that 151,943 passengers we referred to secondary screening by BDOs, with 14,104 of those sent to secondary screening being further questioned by law enforcement … and 1,083 of those people being arrested by law enforcement.

Of the 14,104 people interviewd by law enforcement following a TSA secondary screening initiated by the TSA, none of them were suspected of terrorist activity. Of the 1,083 people arrested by law enforcement after being SPOTted by a BDO … not one of them was been arrested for being a terrorist, alleged terrorism or having any ties to terrorism.

The most startling issue with the effectiveness of the TSA’s BDO program is this … US GAO reports state that U.S. intelligence agencies show at least 16 alleged terrorists have traveled through eight separate airports where BDOs are deployed on at least 23 separate occasions. At no time were any of these 16 alleged terrorists ever sent to secondary screening or SPOTted by BDOs to be questioned.

The most recent incident involved the now convicted terrorist Faisal Shahzad, shortly after he attempted to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square. On the 3rd of May 2010 Shahzad passed through a TSA security check point at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4 … passing TSA BDOs … a mere 53 hours after his failed attempt to detonate a car bomb, and hours after he had been identified as the primary suspect in the attempted car bombing.   This incident would make Shahzad the 17th (alleged at the time) terrorist to pass through a TSA security checkpoint with BDOs, for the 24th time at nine airports.

The TSA claims that it intends to release scientific evidence supporting the BDO SPOT program in 2011, but can a program that has been tested and failed in real world situations be saved, even if proved to be scientifically viable?

The job of the TSA is to protect the freedom of movement for people and commerce. This is done by ensuring the safety and security of modes of transportation, not through mission creep into the realm of law enforcement. Law enforcement is a distraction from the job in which the TSA has been tasked. When TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) spend their time looking for large quantities of money, drugs or a person violating parole, seeking out illegal immigrants, they are doing the job of law enforcement, rather than focusing completely on the security of passengers.

No one has ever hijacked a plane with $5,000 in cash in their pocket, blown up a plane with a bag containing marijuana and there is really no security risk in letting someone fly who has jumped parole on a Driving While Intoxicated conviction, illegal immigrants want to blend in and are unlikely to try and be a terrorist threat.  Yes, those jumping parole or transporting illegal drugs should be arrested … but the TSA should not be looking for them … they pose no threat to the safety and security of commercial airline flights … and these are the people TSA BDOs have championed in their successes in terms of those who’ve been arrested or pulled for questioning.

Where does the TSA go with human security assets from here? Will the agency continue to fund the BDO program simply to save face or will it adjust its program to a different tactic, a tactic that has been proven to be effective?  Only time will tell, however with an expected budget of US$1.2-billion to be spent on the BDO program over the next five years, following the TSA’s investment of US$232-million, the agency should reconsider the value and effectiveness of this program in its current evoltion.

Happy Flying!



  1. It is important to remember that BDO relies on the
    nervousness that someone has when carrying a bomb through security
    and they think they might be caught. The 16 terrorists had no fear
    of being caught because they were not carrying bombs or weapons or
    planning to attack in any sort of way behind security. Ditto for
    Faisal Shahzad, plus I’m sure he was feeling great relief when he
    got past check-in, the most likely place that he would have gotten
    caught if the feds had found his identity. There was nothing TSA
    was going to do to detect or stop Shahzad–that was for the CBP to
    do, which they did. TSA does not have no-fly lists at the
    checkpoints–all that is done via computer before/during check-in.
    As a good little terrorist, I’m sure Shahzad knew that and thought
    he was home free. Thus nervousness would not have been in evidence.
    And he would have been home-free if it wouldn’t have been for that
    diligent CBP officer scanning the manifest manually.

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