chat down, tsa
© Josh T. Reynolds/USA TODAY
A TSA agent interviews a traveler in Boston as part of Logan International Airport's pilot program for enhanced behavior detection at airport security.
Wear your heart on your sleeve if you want, but just be careful about showing your emotions when you travel - the Transportation Security Administration is watching.

The nation's airport security agency has 3,000 employees at 161 airports nationwide trained to identify terrorists simply by reading faces and body language - a glance in a certain direction, a nervous gesture.

American taxpayers have paid dearly for what the TSA called its Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT program: More than $1 billion at 161 airports.

But the record of these behavior-detection officers is disappointing, to say the least: not a single terrorist nabbed. In fact, 16 passengers allegedly tied to terror plots passed 23 times through airports - and not one was picked out of the crowd.

And a federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, is warning that SPOT's miserable record probably won't get any better, at least any time soon. At a hearing on Capitol Hill last month, the GAO's Stephen Lord told lawmakers that the TSA has not completely validated the science behind SPOT - or proved that it works in an airport environment - even though the program's budget has grown 15 percent in five years, from $198 million in fiscal 2009 to a requested $227 million in fiscal 2013.

"Skip the humans, spend the money on canines. They are more effective, better trained, don't feel the need to unionize and you can still keep the same name 'SPOT,' " said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security who is often critical of the TSA.

SPOT, which the TSA began testing almost a decade ago, is based in part on controversial research by retired psychology professor Paul Ekman, who holds that lies and harmful intent can be detected through "micro-expressions," brief flashes of emotion that reveal a concealed feeling, particularly under stress.

Critics of SPOT point out the difficulty of telling the difference between the stress of traveling - and dealing with TSA security checks - and the stress of bringing down a planeful of passengers.

In the scientific community, there is real doubt that "micro-expressions" reveal much about someone's desire to deceive - let alone smuggle a bomb on board. Another psychologist contends 50 years of research simply don't support the premise that even a behavior-detection officer can tell a liar from a truth-teller.

"There's simply no good reason to think that people give themselves away by nonverbal behavior," said Maria Hartwig, associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Then there are security experts like Bruce Schneier, who sees SPOT as nothing but a big show to fool the public into feeling safer.

"The behavioral detection program is zero percent effective at preventing terrorism," Schneier wrote on his blog after the GAO released its report. "The TSA refuses to back down on any of its security theater measures. At the same time, its budget is being cut and more people are flying. The result: longer waiting times at security."

Civil rights advocates rely on common sense to make their argument against SPOT.

"When people go to the airport, they're nervous or anxious for many different reasons," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union. "They're upset at their boyfriend or girlfriend, they're going to a funeral, they're angry at the airlines. [SPOT] is based on this sort of romantic notion that a grizzled veteran interrogator can spot something wrong at a glance."

The GAO's criticism spurred the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, to commission a study of SPOT's effectiveness. Initial findings showed behavior-detection officers did better than regular agents at screening passengers for suspicious expressions and gestures. Still, GAO wasn't impressed.

"It didn't end the debate about whether you can use this for counterterrorism purposes," Lord of the GAO told The Daily. "That's the bottom line."

Despite all the criticism, the TSA has no intention of ditching SPOT.

The agency promises to keep trying to validate the program - and improve it - in response to scrutiny from the GAO and an increasingly skeptical Congress. It even plans to expand SPOT. A pilot program at airports in Boston and Detroit has behavior-detection officers engage in conversation with passengers, asking them a few casual questions to sniff out shady behavior.

"The deterrent value of the program can't be overstated," TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said. "SPOT adds another layer of security to the airport environment and presents the terrorists with yet one more challenge they need to overcome in attempt to defeat our security system."

For Stanley of the ACLU, the answer to thwarting terrorists doesn't lie with fixing SPOT. It's all about basic police work.

"The best thing you can do is catch terrorists before they get to the airport," he said. "For that, you need to invest in good old-fashioned law enforcement and shoe leather."