The Transportation Security Administration's program -- Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, was in the news last week after screeners in Orlando arrested an Army veteran after he tried to check luggage containing pipe-bomb-making materials to Jamaica.
When Kevin Brown's luggage was searched, two galvanized pipes, end caps, two containers of BB pellets, batteries, flammable liquid in two Vodka bottles, a laptop and bomb-making literature were allegedly found.
No offense to the screeners trained in "behavior detection," but it would be a little difficult not to notice all that stuff in a suitcase, regardless how the man behaved. News reports noted that Brown has a history of mental illness.
So Brown was stopped, from whatever it was he might have done, but he would have been stopped anyway.
In the four years since the program was launched, the TSA has yet to encounter any would-be suicide bombers, the Associated Press reported. The most common stops have been for people carrying fake IDs.
Of the more than 104,000 travelers who were taken out of security lines and subjected to a more intense level of screening because of something "suspicious" in their demeanor, fewer than 700 were arrested. About 9,300 revealed something during the screening process that caused the TSA to call in law enforcement for more investigation.
Here's the heart of the problem: About half of those 9,300 people were not suspected of a particular crime, but behaved "suspiciously enough" that screeners called police anyway. "We don't know. But she sure seems guilty of something."
TSA officials refuse to say exactly what sort of behavior can make them suspicious, but part of the effort relies on watching for fleeting facial expressions that indicate a person is under stress and has something to hide. Perhaps they could have stopped Larry Craig before he went into that bathroom.
Under stress at the airport? Never. Something to hide? Oh, just about everybody. Just not necessarily something explosive or even illegal. So how does a fleeting facial expression tell the trained observer whether someone is hiding a box cutter or a secret crush?
TSA agent James Rivera says: "There's always a reason why you're exhibiting that behavior that catches our attention. Maybe it's just because you are having problems at home."
Which is why we like the machines that screen the luggage, and the machines that screen the person and the alert people who monitor them.