Recently there has been a great deal of criticism and critique about the Transportation Security Administration’s SPOT program, which trains TSA agents in behavioral analysis.  If you read the blog posts and comments on the topic, much of which has been courageously posted by anonymous people without any legitimate suggestions for finding terrorists or criminals, you will find that most of it is ridiculous and baseless, but there have been a few concerns raised that do deserve a response to people who want to know more.

Before I address a few of the critiques that I think are valid questions, I’ll just say that I don’t know all of the details about the training that the agents go through and am responding more to the critiques of behavioral analysis as a means to identify threats.  But the material on this site and the training that we provide, combined with what I have heard about the training, I’ll say that no one pretends that this is the be-all-end-all way to provide security to the country or does it produce mind-readers.  It is simply one piece to identifying those that intend to do harm to us.

Critique #1: Known terrorists have moved through airports and have not been detected by the BDOs (Behavior Detection Officers).

What lets us identify those people who don’t fit in is by identifying the body language that is a result of the limbic system’s response to stress.  If a person is conducting a crime, their body will prepare them for the freeze, flight, or fight response causing biological and physiological responses as well as a corresponding impact on their body language.

Did any of these known terrorists that have evaded these BDOs conduct an attack?  No they didn’t.  If they were not in the act of a crime, there wouldn’t be a corresponding stress response and the person wouldn’t give off the cues that would make them identifiable.  Both parties (good guys and bad guys) need to be involved for detection to occur, if good guys aren’t looking for them or bad guys aren’t preparing or conducting an attack, it isn’t reasonable to assume that they could be found.

Critique #2: All of the people that have been arrested by the BDOs (I think it was around 1,800 people by 2010) were criminals with outstanding warrants or guilty of other crimes, not terrorism.

This should be an indicator of success, not a critique!  A terrorist attack is not possible without some form of criminal act before it.  A terrorist would need a fake ID, they would need to weapons, they would need to build and transport explosives, they would need to launder money, they would have to smuggle the weapon into the location of the attack, they would have to hijack a plane, etc. before they could conduct an attack.  You can’t conduct a terrorist attack without at least one criminal act occurring before it.

The fact that these officers have been identifying criminals could have hypothetically stopped an attack.  What would constitute stopping a terrorist?  The definition is pretty vague.  How would you know if one of those criminals intended to bring down an airline?  Is it realistic and reasonable to think that we would be able to prove a person’s intentions and classify that as terrorism or common crime?

At a minimum, is it bad that 1,800 people (and those were 2010 statistics) were detained?  Again, these are people who were dangerous enough to have warrants out for their arrests.  Because the BDOs who had this training were able to identify the criminals should show that the program has some merit.  These were criminals who we know had successfully avoided detection up to this point since they were still at large.

Critique #3: What if I am just nervous about flying, won’t I give off the same cues and get questioned by a BDO?

Probably, and frankly you should be stopped.  The limbic system response that lets us identify you would be the same, but if you are legitimately just nervous about flying, it won’t take long for the TSA to realize that you are not a terrorist and just don’t enjoy flying.  If you cooperate and answer the questions, I would imagine that you would move on fairly quickly with only minimal hassle.

Think of the number of people that died on September 11th (on the planes, in the towers, and in the Pentagon) and all of the members of the military that have been killed in the decade long war that resulted from that day.  Let’s say that 100 people get questioned by the TSA and 99 of them are just nervous flyers who still catch their flights, but they stop 1 person who intends to hijack a plane.  Would you really trade that amount of death for an extra 10 minutes of basic questions about where you are heading?  As a Marine, I will apologize to those 99 people for the delay before I have to tell one set of parents that their son or daughter died because I let a person go through security who I observed giving off behavioral cues known to be pre-event indicators to threats.

Critique #4: The science behind the program has not been validated. 

People have cited the work of Dr. Paul Ekman and his training that teaches people to identify the seven universal emotions.  They also cite research that shows that people only have a 50-50 chance of detecting lies successfully.  What they leave out is that research shows the 50-50 ability applies to people who have had no training in deception detection and those that have had training have shown significantly higher results.   But all of the research has been done in a laboratory!  I am not a researcher, but I know that the issues of variables provide a great number of limitations on the results of a study.  If you think about what it would take to conduct a study in an unscripted environment, it certainly wouldn’t be easy.  Let’s say a researcher identifies that a person is lying, but the person who was lying continues to deny the lie.  The results of the entire study would be thrown out.

The material that you find here on this site (again, I don’t know the details about the entirety of the TSA training) is based off of the application of research from over 16 different scientific fields, but we also go beyond just recognition of facial expressions.  We also don’t say that it is fool proof or that we make perfect decisions, just satisfactory decisions with the limited time and information that we have access to.

One of the experts in the field that we cite extensively, Joe Navarro, is a retired FBI agent and provides training to the FBI.  His work has been validated and has gone to great lengths to ensure that it is scientifically validated.

Critique #5: A one-week training program is insufficient.

This one I don’t necessarily disagree with as it certainly takes more time to become an expert in any field.  But one week is enough time to teach the skills to the agents and provide the foundation for continued learning.  As long as there is a structured system for continued learning, it is reasonable to assume that the skills of these BDOs will only increase and become more accurate.

They can also come to this site for more information, resources, and videos to practice on.  Of course this database of resources and videos will only continue to grow and become more inclusive for them.  (You see what I did there? Marketing is everything).

And for a quick run through of the more ridiculous comments people have made:

The program is too expensive.

Yeah it certainly costs a lot of money, but lets put that into context.  The GSA (the agency who oversees government spending) spent over $800,000 on a conference in Las Vegas in 2010.  That was just for one conference, not to mention all of the trips required for the planning of it.  Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, uses military aircraft for personal travel and vacations.  Government spending is out of control, but we can probably find ways to reduce that before we start cutting training and education to people responsible for our security.

In 2008 when the TSA stopped a person in Orlando trying to check a bag filled with explosives was identified by other passengers, not the TSA or the airlines!

Is that really a bad thing?  Are we BLAMING the TSA when concerned citizens help security by doing their part?  That is huge progress and should be celebrated.  That is people doing the right thing! TSA, I hope you have learned your lesson.

The TSA should be going to Quantico to study with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit to become a real “profiler.”

The BAU’s personnel are trained to develop a profile about a person who has ALREADY conducted an attack or a crime.  They look at the crime, analyze the elements that they can identify that say something about the individual and then put out a list of characteristics to help the local police find that individual.  They don’t look at people before a crime is conducted and pick the serial killer out of the crowd.  Personally, I don’t want to wait for a plan to blow up (with the attacker on it) before we start looking for the attacker.  I’m not knocking the FBI or the BAU, far from it, what they do is incredible, but it doesn’t fit this scenario.

And my personal favorite:

We should do it like the Israeli’s do it. 

I couldn’t agree more.  But they take behavioral analysis to a level that would never be accepted here in America and start looking for people the second they park their cars or get dropped off on the sidewalk.  Even a former director of security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv has said it is a vital part of their security process.  How many people are going to tolerate a mandatory interview before you board a plane while we are still angry at taking our shoes off.

Disagree?  That’s fine.  And feel free to post your comments here, just don’t do it anonymously.