“Behavior detection”: still a bad idea

John Pistole, who heads the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), posted an op-ed in USA Today on August 17, 2012 in an attempt to shore up support for and justify the existence of his “behavior detection” program.

The op-ed was laughable in its repetition of increasingly content-free TSA talking points, yet almost desperate because Pistole didn’t have anything new to say, nor any evidence to back up his statements. It’s as if he believes that repeating these statements over and over will somehow make them true.

Let’s look at his opinion piece paragraph by paragraph. Don’t worry, it’s short, so this won’t take long.

Pistole asserts that because there’s no silver bullet for good airport security, the TSA “utilizes a risk-based, intelligence-driven layered approach to security, using everything from passenger information to technology and importantly, behavior-detection techniques.”

Fair enough, but one only has to look at the conduct of TSA agents to wonder what this “risk-based, intelligence-driven layered approach to security” really means. Theft of passenger property, especially iPads and money, is so rampant, one must ask if risk assessments made by TSA agents are about deciding whether or not to steal your stuff. And maybe “intelligence-driven” means TSA agents talking to each other on their phones to decide which passengers would be good marks.

Pistole continues: “Looking for suspicious behavior is simply common sense. Law enforcement does it every day in communities across the country and around the world.”

Also fair — except that in spite of their spiffy police-blue uniforms, TSA screeners are not law enforcement. Even if they were, law enforcement in this country cannot walk up to random people and engage them in conversation in the hope that they say something to incriminate themselves.

Police, in general, have to have probable cause, or at least reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is going on before they can engage people in this way. And with police, if you aren’t under arrest or being detained, you can ask if you are free to go, and if the police say yes, you can walk away.

In addition, “casual conversations” initiated by so-called Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) are never going to be “casual.” Passengers in airports already tend to be stressed out. Being accosted by a person in uniform and asked questions about one’s travel plans only adds more stress. In that situation, no matter what is said, no matter how supposedly friendly the question, it’s going to feel like an interrogation. And the person is likely going to exhibit “behavioral cues” that might look suspicious to a BDO.

(Let’s leave aside the fact that the BDO program has been repeatedly called into question as unproven and ineffective, and the “theory” on which it is based has been widely discredited.)

Even though the administrative law standards, which apply at airports, use a much looser standard for searches, the sky is not the limit. Law professor Jeffrey Rosen described the legal test for whether body scans and pat downs are constitutional in a well-written opinion piece for the Washington Post back in 2010, and concluded the procedures fail the constitutional test.

Again, Pistole: “In the past month alone, TSA officers trained to pick up on behavioral cues saved a beaten and kidnapped woman from her kidnappers in Miami and came to the rescue of a man having a heart attack in Boston.”

Misdirection! A rhetorical tactic to gain support by changing the subject.

Okay, we should be glad that TSA agents came to the rescue of these two people, but isn’t that just ordinary human decency? The stated reason for behavioral detection is to ferret out terrorists, not to rescue people, or to find low-level criminals. In fact, TSA screeners are legally prohibited from searching for or questioning anyone about anything other than weapons, explosives, and incendiaries. Yet, as we know, they ignore this prohibition all the time.

In the case of the beaten woman, her face was covered with bruises, and she asked for help. Would you claim you had special powers of detection because you could see a woman’s bruised face, or because you noticed someone in extreme distress?

Pistole’s next statement: “Our behavior-detection program is a critical part of our approach to securing travel, but profiling passengers on any basis is simply not tolerated.”

It’s a great talking point, but the reality is that even TSA agents themselves have complained that racial profiling is an on-going problem at the TSA.

Who are the BDOs approaching to engage in “casual conversation”? According to TSA employee allegations, the TSA has targeted “Hispanics and well-dressed African-Americans with expensive jewelry or luggage” – practically the definition of racial profiling.

Pistole: “While deterrence is an important outcome of TSA’s security protocols and initiatives, it is also difficult to measure. But when security measures deter a would-be terrorist from attempting to carry out a planned attack, we have succeeded.”

In other words, “we know we haven’t found any terrorists, but please continue to allow us to violate the constitutional rights of travelers.”

The truth is it’s impossible know if any of security measures put in place after 9/11, aside from reinforcing the cockpit doors, have prevented another terrorist attack. You can’t prove a negative. You may as well say that because you carry a special stone in your pocket to ward off terrorists, and no terrorists have attacked you, therefore the stone works.

Finally, Pistole claims that “the behavior-detection program is an internationally proven way to observe possible threats.”

What he fails to note is that other countries’ behavior-detection experts have spent years in training, which isn’t the case for rank-and-file members of the TSA, who get 4 days in the classroom and 24 hours of on-the-job “training” before they’re unleashed on the public as BDOs.

In the end, Pistole has nothing but his worn-out talking points, none of which show any evidence that this program is worth keeping.

What’s the best outcome for the “behavioral detection” program?

Shut it down.


(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/ClownBurner)

  • JackNelsonSteward

    The notion that this blog is “dedicated to writing about the agency with fairness and accuracy.

    is absurd.

    It can’t even use correct terminology is talking about officers, lazily mimicking the MSM use of “agents.”

    This is NOT a “News” site, as claimed in its name.

    It’s another disguised opinion outlet.

    • Mr. Steward, we make no apologies for having opinions. We do have opinions, and we back them up with facts.

      When we don’t use TSA-approved terminology, it’s deliberate. You will find that some writers here also sometimes use the word “clerks.”

      TSA agents aren’t law enforcement officers, yet use of the word “officers” implies to the general public that they are.

      • JackNelsonSteward

        “an independent blog that covers the Transportation Security
        Administration. We are dedicated to writing about the agency with
        fairness and accuracy”

        Simply by the terminology you use in your headlines and titles you reveal the lie in your own declaration.

        You are NOT writing with “fairness.” You are writing OPINION.

        TSA officers were designated thus by Congress. The proper title is “Officer,” not “Agent.” That you refuse to use the simply accurate terminology demonstrates your lack of attention to “accuracy.”

        This is not “News.”

        It’s just another rave.

        • You don’t seem to understand the concept of “fairness” nor of “news.” We report what the TSA is up to. That’s news. We strive to be fair in our assessments. That’s opinion. One doesn’t preclude the other.

          • JackNelsonSteward

            No. Name calling is not “news.”

            You freely admit the use of “voodoo practitioners.” That has NOTHING to do with “news.”

            Even the use of “strip search scanners” is demagoguery.

            I know what “news” is and I can distinguish it from “hype.”

            What you’re doing is “anti-TSA Hype.” To be accurate that’s what you should call your blog.

          • Mr. Steward, please feel free to start your own blog and call it what you like. Perhaps “Pro-TSA Hype.”

          • JackNelsonSteward

            Please feel free to be truthful in your own declaration about what you’re doing.

            ” … an independent blog that opines about the Transportation Security Administration. We are dedicated to writing about the agency with
            name-calling and inaccurate terms.”

            Clear enough.

          • enaylius

            u mad bro? no one likes you here. no one likes what you and TSA employees do for a living. you aren’t going to convince anyone here of your agency’s benevolence when we have a treasure trove of facts and empirical evidence to show that it is in fact a malevolent one. go crawl back into your hole where you belong and start apologizing for what you did for a living.

          • JackNelsonSteward


            Why, no, not at all.

            You feel safer bleating from the center of the herd you imagine you’re surrounded by?

            no one likes you”

            We have … facts ”

            I have over eight years of daily experience on those checkpoints, en, not distortions and exaggerations and demagoguery, and YOU certainly haven’t brought anything more “empirical” than your sputtering attempts at derision and condemnation.

            I don’t need your approval. I have real service provided to real people day after day for nearly a decade.

          • Enaylius

            Your on a blog that reports on the brown shirt activities of a brown shirt organization. You are a fascist. By the way ever here of DoX’ing?

          • JackNelsonSteward

            I’m on a blog that distorts and misrepresents and lies about itself.

            You still wrap yourself in the group think and hide in the middle of the herd to issue veiled threats.

            You’re a coward.

          • Enaylius

            You also live in Florida and troll a lot of boards relating to many different topics…interesting. Oh and I threatened you how? And you get defensive very easily.

          • JackNelsonSteward

            It’s not “defensive” to point to the obvious.

            Anyone who Googles the screen name knows what you just discovered.

            Do you have anything relevant to say, yet?

            … or do you just want to keep trolling me?

          • Enaylius

            You’re very quick to as you put it “You still wrap yourself in the group think and hide in the middle of the herd”. Jack you have mastered very well the art of passive aggressiveness. You start out very nice and try to sound knowledgeable until someone challenges your opinion. How quick you are to act the same way you have accused others here of acting. Hypocrite


            “Yeah, Luc, that “Southern Stategy” that Nixon employed … colorblind … uh huh …

            they STILL were using it, Luc … against their own in one of the
            Carolina Republican primaries against McCain … more colorblindness.

            The Republicans actually ARE “colorblind,” Luc … but it’s that
            “red/green” color blindness. As long as they’re making “green” they
            don’t care if you shed “red.”

            Yeah … back in the middle of LAST CENTURY there were racist Democrats …

            Poor, Luc … has a hard time staying current.”

            a year ago

          • JackNelsonSteward

            Good night, Liz.

          • Enaylius

            Tampa area? http://tbo.com/south-shore/news-about-high-speed-rail-flies-faster-than-a-speeding-bullet-225094 . You are interesting JackNelsonSteward. You run around almost zealot like in your defense of your claimed former employer ”


            Jun 20, 2012 5:52 AM CDT

            Ms Papenfuss has demonstrated either her utter ignorance
            or her willilngness to participate in a deliberate campaign to
            misrepresent the people on the checkpoints.

            There are no “agents” out there. They are NOT “security guards.”

            Congress decided to change their designation from “screener” to
            “officer,” and that’s what they are: Transportation Security Officers
            … or TSO’s.

            So, there’s no “former airport security guard” complaining to her former
            boss. There’s a former TSO apparently committing assault against her
            former surpervisor.

            By the way, if you think you’re being mishandled, you DO have a right to
            complain and those complaints DO result in correction. You do NOT have
            a right to put your hands on ANY of those officers.” – Source http://www.newser.com/story/148468/ex-tsa-agent-busted-for-groping-tsa-supervisor.html That’s just one of your defensive/passive aggressive rhetoric. You aren’t out to have a conversation. You are out to justify yourself amongst your peers and perhaps justify yourself for whatever you did those “eight years” on the checkpoint.

          • JackNelsonSteward

            You don’t understand “defensive” OR “passive aggressive.” There are no elements of either in any comment of mine you’ve posted.

            You hide in the herd and try to sound important.

          • Enaylius

            Very defensive. Look at the broader picture Jack. These are mere examples. One only has to look at your posts here to see what I am talking about. If I am guilty of what you just described than so are you. You’re a bully, you are a fascist. Constitution and human rights hater. Go to bed old man.

          • Daisiemae

            You go girl!

        • Susan Richart

          No, Congress did not declare screeners to be officers. The TSA did that all by itself:

          “When Congress created the TSA
          through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in 2001, airport
          screening personnel were designated as federal security screeners. They wore white shirts with appropriate TSA
          patches and black pants to properly reflect their level of training, which is simply to screen passengers and bags at airport terminals.

          In 2008, however, because of low morale within the workforce, the agency administratively reclassified federal security screeners as Transportation Security Officers and Behavior Detection Officers. ‘


          • JackNelsonSteward

            As far as we knew. that is, the people in the checkpoints, we were designated “Officers” by Congress.

    • Susan Richart

      TSA screeners were deemed “officers” at the time new new LE-style uniforms with the tin badges appeared. The change of dress and title was designed specifically as an attempt to force more respect from the flying public. Sadly, for some people, perhaps you, the deception has worked.

      • JackNelsonSteward

        The badges are not “tin.” Congress designed and mandated the uniform changes for “command presence.”

        Imagine, Susan, if YOU worked in the immediate proximity of huge metal detecting devices all day long, if your normal duties carried you through those devices dozens of times each day. Imagine that your clothing, even your shoes, were specifically chosen so you could do that without constantly setting the things off.

        Now, Susan. Imagine that a distant body of persons who had NEVER DONE YOUR JOB inSISTed that you wear a METAL BADGE on your required uniform.

        Yeah … that’s how we felt about it, too.

    • No, this blog is absolutely correct: TSA employees are NOT officers. They are not trained in law enforcement, nor are they deputized LEO’s. If someone breaks the law, they cannot arrest him or her–they must summon a proper, deputized law enforcement OFFICER (i.e. from the airport or city police) to do so. Simply wearing a badge does not make you an officer–if it did, there were “officers” knocking on my door this Halloween and there are “officers” doing strip-tease appearances at bachelor parties. Good grief.

      • JackNelsonSteward

        “TSA employees” may not all be officers, Deb, and the ones on the checkpoints ARE.

        You are correct, we were not trained in law enforcement, nor were we deputized, nor did we have the power of arrest.

        You are correct: Wearing a badge doesn’t make someone an officer.

        The TSA decides what it’s screeners are called and it decided we were “officers.”

        … Transportation Security Officers …

        … and that’s what those men and women are.


  • Shemp007

    I was “quizzed” by something in a tsa uniform at BWI. Was told this is trial “new procedure”. She asked my name which I answered since it was right there on the ticket. Asked my destination, which I also answered. Then however, a problem quickly arose. She asked why I was going, and what I would be doing at my destination. I had to laugh, you see, I am a 20+ year NSA employee who has and endless security briefings and polygraphs throughout my career. So many in fact that I believe I have started to become immune to them but that is a different story.

    Anyway, I told her (using all correct body language and direct eye contact) that I would be going there to meet my mistress and together we would be spending her husbands money recklessly while having lavish parties, shopping sprees and endless nights of passion! “Should be great fun”, I said, ending my interview with my well-trained portal of security who was standing there processing my words. “you, uhh, wouldn’t tell my wife, would you?” I asked. There was absolutely no reply whatsoever, and she gave me look that seemed to be of deep disappointment with a little touch of envy. However, what I detected the most, was (in my opinion, and two-minute observation of MY target), was that she also gave a look of, I now have something on you sir, just keep that in mind.

    She never did respond, and sent me (against her better judgment) into the safety and security of the sanitized zone. Ahhhh security, thy name is TSA!

    • Shemp007, brilliant! I love this story!

      • Shemp007

        Thank you, thank you – I’ll be here all the week…

        The sad truth is, I was on my way to spend a week out west helping my brother-in-law paint! Regrettably, I have no mistress and bro was not a huge spender. We ate at Taco Bell almost every night! I even had to pay on more than one occasion!

        Whats funny? My wife was right behind me in line and overheard the entire interview! TSA never had a clue, and we laughed and laughed at the gate.

        What they (the TSA) doesn’t realize is, is that a vast majority of the American public are tremendously smarter than the experts vetting us. If I will continue to be questioned in the way I was at the airport, I will continue to provide the types of responses I have posted above. This questioning technique will work on some. Most will find it innocuous and not care, but the very people they are targeting will quickly adapt and easily circumvent this tactic. The U.S. airport security is not the Israeli airport security, and what works there, will never work here!

  • Renee Beeker

    We are lacking accountability of tax payers money spent within the TSA.
    Clearly a cost benefits analysis could support the waste of our tax dollars. It is time for this agency to be held
    Perhaps the inspector general should be ask to investigate on
    these grounds?

  • Guest

    We are lacking accountability of tax payers money spent within the TSA.
    Clearly a cost benefits analysis could support waste of our tax dollars. Time for this agency to be held
    accountable. Perhaps the inspector general should be ask to investigate on
    these grounds?

  • David

    Great post. We should have a national ACT WEIRD DAY to throw them all off.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      Except they’d completely miss it because they’re all morons.

  • cjr001

    The entirety of TSA needs to be shut down.

  • 1amWendy

    When Pistole first took this job – after the TSA could find no one for many, many months – he made a statement that he wanted to make the TSA into some sort of elite law enforcement agency. It’s been so many years that I cannot find the quote anymore, but it’s patently clear that the man has no business running the TSA because he simply cannot divorce himself from his 26 years at the FBI, and he cannot comprehend that the TSA was never intended to be a convenient method for law enforcement to get around those pesky Constitutional protections. He keeps on slipping by touting “successes” that have absolutely nothing to do with the TSA’s charter… Drug busts? Not interested. Catching illegal immigrants? Again, not interested. Not your job, man. He really, REALLY in unfit for his position. If anyone in DC had half a brain they would fire him post haste.

    Problem is, no one wants the job. Gee, I wonder why?????

  • Let’s not forget that the Behavior Detection program has already had twenty-three high-profile failures: on at least 23 separate occasions, at least sixteen known terrorists flew from airports that used behavior detection, and none of these *known* terrorists were detected. Isn’t that an interesting statistic, Mr. Pistole? Missing 23 out of 23 chances to catch a terrorist is a quantitative fact – of the kind conspicuously absent from Pistole’s fluffy non-argument.

    • JackNelsonSteward

      See if you can grasp this:

      Those officers are trained to notice the kinds of autonomic signs displayed by someone attempting deceit.

      If those “terrorists” you’re talking about were not being covert about anything, for instance, if they were NOT carrying anything they were trying to smuggle through the checkpoint,. they wouldn’t have displayed those signs.

      Get it?

      • Oooh, autonomic signs — how impressive! Yeah, 4 days in the classroom and 24 hours of on-the-job practice. What rigorous training in detecting autonomic signs!



        • JackNelsonSteward

          Not noted to be “impressive,” just factual.

          Yes thirty two hours in class, approximately what you get in a three hour course in a quarter in college, condensed into four days, followed by 24 hours under supervision, followed by daily monitoring and debriefing.

          You have nothing but your opinions as the “rigor” of the training. I worked with the officers daily from the time they started working.

        • Daisiemae

          You know, this guy is a paragon of the worst traits often found in low level government employees. He is the epitome of everything that people hate about TSA. His every word makes people despise TSA more and more.

          As for his excessive ravings and pontifications, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    What?!?!?! People love the TSA! Why in the world does it need defending? Methinks Pistole doth protest too much.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) agrees with you. A longtime critic of the agency, he’s asked Pistole to suspend the program. Of course, P will no doubt ignore him just as he’s ignored everybody else in Congress: