A behavior observation program that has been used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) since 2007 to help spot potential high-risk air travelers remains a key part of the agency’s layered approach to aviation security and is now being used to help identify low-risk passengers to be ushered into expedited screening lanes at airport security checkpoints, the head of the agency said on Tuesday.

Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) are being used “effectively” to help identity high-risk passengers but now “we’re getting double bank for the buck” by using them to identify low-risk passengers within the Managed Inclusion program, TSA Administrator John Pistole told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.

TSA Administrator John Pistole. Photo: TSA
TSA Administrator John Pistole. Photo: TSA

The Managed Inclusion program is being used by TSA to help fill its PreCheck expedited security lanes, which are in use at 118 airports in the United States to provide expedited screening benefits to low-risk passengers. The rationale behind Managed Inclusion is that most travelers are indeed low-risk and don’t pose a threat to aviation security.

PreCheck lanes can handle up to 300 passengers an hour versus 150 an hour for standard lanes because they don’t require travelers to remove their shoes, laptop computers, and 3-1-1 liquid compliant bags at the checkpoint.

While many passengers voluntarily enroll in the PreCheck program by submitting to a background check and paying a fee, TSA agents in airports also select some passengers to go through the PreCheck lanes based on several indicators that are used to identify them as low risk. BDOs are one layer of the low-risk assessment while the use of bomb sniffing dogs or explosive trace detection systems are another, Pistole said.

Pistole said that he expects the use of the Managed Inclusion program to decline as enrollment in PreCheck increases.

TSA has spent more than $900 million on its personnel and related training for its behavior detection program, officially called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), since 2007. However, the SPOT program has frequently been the target of criticism, initially by critics concerned that it might be used to unfairly profile certain segments of the population, and of late for being ineffective due to a lack of metrics and because studies have shown that the ability of humans to identify deceptive behavior is about the same or slightly better than chance.

An independent study is expected to be completed this year of the SPOT program to in part help TSA gauge if its BDOs are effective. Pistole said the three years that the study has been underway provide a “gold standard” of time for evaluating the program.

Pistole also said that in defense of the SPOT program, if just one terrorist is stopped by a BDO then the program is worth it based on what happened on 9/11. He believes the 9/11 plot would have at least been disrupted if the SPOT program were in place then.