Jeff and Christine's Homeland Security Blog

Homeland Security and Terrorism

Chat-downs: Behavioral Science at Work

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The Transportation Safety Agency (TSA) has a tough job, and it continues to look for ways to stop terrorists while minimizing inconvenience to legitimate travelers. Sometimes, the emphasis is on technology, but a successful pilot program involving focused questioning and observation by a trained officer shows that behavior analysis techniques work.

An article in Business Week magazine explains that the program will soon be expanded to a second site:

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport joins Boston’s Logan International as a test site for the program, in which TSA employees briefly talk to passengers to assess whether they might be involved in terrorist activities. The technique has been called “chat-downs” by Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House homeland security committee, who has questioned whether it works. “

While there have been a number of naysayers about this technique, my main question is, “What took them so long to implement this method!” Behavior detection is the way to go for TSA and I would like to see this spread to include many more airports. The chat only takes a minute or two, and it can be very revealing of individuals’ motivations, fears and worries. People involuntarily show physical and physiological reactions to a fear of being discovered, and when briefly interviewed by authority figures, anxiety is intensified– allowing officers to detect these reactions. While electronic detection equipment has its place, focused observation is more likely to lead to an individual’s motivations and intentions.

According to the TSA website,

“The Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) program utilizes non-intrusive behavior observation and analysis techniques to identify potentially high-risk passengers. BDOs are designed to detect individuals exhibiting behaviors that indicate they may be a threat to aviation and/or transportation security. The program is a derivative of other successful behavioral analysis programs that have been employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and around the world.”

Many of TSA’s techniques have been pioneered by the Israelis, who have been struggling with the terror threat for much longer than the US has.

Behavior detection is a risk-based approach which allows TSA to focus its limited resources on making a determination whether someone is really a risk or not. This saves time for travelers who are non-threats and who can pass through these checks with no problems. It is not profiling, since determinations are made based on a number of factors including body language and responses to questions, and not on the religious or ethnic make-up of travelers. This is smart, given the fact that terrorists come from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

This isn’t a new method; in fact, it has been practiced by the airlines for many, many years. For international flights, it has been common for airline personnel to ask questions of travelers such as whether they were given anything to pack, or whether they packed their own bags. This allowed airline staff to gauge reactions and focus limited resources on possible threats rather than mindlessly subjecting everyone to the same level of scrutiny.

Behavior detection is a risk based approach which is much needed in TSA’s methodology and is, at last, a logical way to proceed.  Those who don’t support this method may be basing their opposition on a basic misunderstanding of what it entails, since it relies on established behavioral analysis techniques and avoids the privacy and profiling pitfalls of alternative measures.

2 Responses

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  1. TSA revealed last week that 91% of their workforce has only a GED or High School education. This is hardly a highly trained organization capable of carrying out a sophisticated investigative program. This will only serve as another mechanism for them to harass and delay innocent passengers without demonstrating any tangible benefit.

    TSA is nothing more than a jobs program for unemployable misfits trying to create an illusion of airline security .Last week one of these ‘”professionals” was arrested in Maryland for possession of child pornography. Another was arrested this week for drug smuggling at LAX. This is the fourth screener charged with smuggling drugs through security the last six months.

    These drugs could just as well have been weapons or explosives carried aboard by a terrorist or intentionally planted in passenger baggage. The nine TSA screeners arrested for child sex crimes this year could have easily been coerced by terrorists into cooperating in order to conceal their crimes.

    There have been 56 TSA screeners arrested so far this year, a rate of one very six days. Of these, nine are charged with sex crimes involving children and four with helping to smuggle drugs through security. Of course, these screeners didn’t know for sure whether the contraband was drugs or explosives.

    So while TSA workers may take bribes that ultimately allow a bomb on a plane, you can be sure that there won’t be any four ounce containers getting past them. It is long past time to heavily reform or abolish this agency and replace it with something that works.

    TSA Crimes & Abuses

    Bill Fisher

    October 20, 2011 at 10:41

    • Thanks for commenting, Bill. We agree that TSA would benefit from bringing in more employees with post-secondary educations. That said, most police officers protecting our communities also have only a high school education, and there’s no call for abolishing police departments and replacing them with some other unspecified solution. Likewise, there have been instances in which police officers have been arrested for serious crimes. Yet, most police are professionals of integrity and commitment.

      The pilots we entrust with our lives when we fly are not required to have college degrees; they need only prove their competence through specialized flight training. The same is true for TSA officers using behavior analysis techniques. There’s no need to be a psychologist to apply these techniques, and indeed they’ve been used successfully for years by junior airline personnel.

      The offenses you quote above are serious, and they should be treated as such at the individual and institutional level. TSA needs to continue to raise its game, because the stakes couldn’t be higher; we support calls to improve the agency’s performance through reform, education, training, and innovation. It just wouldn’t make sense to abolish TSA and remake it again at great expense, nor to return to contracting out this vital function to the lowest bidder.

      Homeland Security

      October 21, 2011 at 19:39

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