Taking Sense Away

Investigators Determine Airport Wizards to be Silly.


One of the first things I spoke out about on this blog was the TSA’s SPOT program (more commonly known as the Behavior Detection program), providing a veritable link storm of expert opinions regarding the program’s uselessness. On Wednesday, the world was blessed with one more link to add to the pile of reasons for disbanding the SPOT program: a report by the DHS inspector general, which yet again corroborated what is obvious to almost every TSA screener and thinking civilian alike.

Even more interesting than Wednesday’s 41-page report, however, is the 228-page subcommittee hearing from 2011. I realize that reading the transcripts and pertinent data of a 200-page hearing is not something that the vast majority of sane, healthy people are willing to do. The good news is that I did it for most of you over a year ago. I will excerpt two of the more interesting portions of the hearing.  

From page 96, where Chairman Paul C. Broun  is grilling Larry Willis, Senior Science Advisor at DHS and Director of Suspicious Behaviors Detection Programs.

Let’s listen in…

WILLIS: For every person correctly
identified using Operational SPOT, 86 were misidentified. For the
base rate or random study, for every person correctly identified, 794 were misidentified.
Chairman BROUN. Wow. SPOT was initially developed as intended to stop terrorism. That is the whole point of it. Now, we see that the program has expanded to include criminal activity. Why was this done?
Mr. WILLIS. You are asking a question about the mission. I am from Science and Technology, sir. I am unable to answer that. May I refer you to TSA?
Chairman BROUN. Well, that is the reason TSA should be here and the reason that I think Ms. Edwards and I are both extremely disappointed that they are not here.
Mr. WILLIS. I could, sir, talk to you about why we use metrics that deal more with criminal than with terrorism.

Chairman BROUN. That would be sufficient—or helpful. 

Mr. WILLIS. Sure. The reason we use those metrics that we had just listed, sir, was because they were available to us through the data in sufficient numbers to analyze, even though they themselves are low base rate or extremely rare. And data directly dealing with terrorism is unavailable and, thus, can’t be used as a metric.


GREAT! So here we learn that a billion-dollar program developed to catch terrorists is now being used to arrest people for everything except terrorism, because– surprise!– there are barely any terrorists out there! So is anybody running a cost/benefit analysis on this program in regard to our tax dollars? Let’s go to page 109, where congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, is probing Stephen M. Lord, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the GAO, in regard to that question.

Let’s listen in…

Ms. EDWARDS. And then finally, Mr. Lord, since you already have the microphone, DHS hasn’t done a cost/benefit analysis on the program or a risk assessment. And it is my understanding that they don’t do a great job actually—and I apologize for the critique—of either conducting cost/benefit analyses or risk assessments for many of their programs. How do we know if we even need the program?

Mr. LORD. Well, typically, as part of our analysis, we would look at the cost/benefit analysis or the risk assessment to study, number one, how they decided—for example, you need a risk assessment, we would assume, to show where you needed to deploy the program. It is at 161 airports, so our question was how did you establish this number? Did you have a risk assessment? And the answer was no. They are in the process of ramping up the program now. Every year, you know, the funding has increased. We assumed that would be justified by a cost/benefit analysis. They don’t have one yet, although to their credit they have agreed to complete both a risk assessment and a cost/benefit analysis. But traditionally, we would expect to find that early at program inception, not 4 or five years after you deployed a program.

Ms. EDWARDS. Well, thank you all for your testimony. And Mr. Chairman, I would just say for the record, it would be good to get a cost/benefit analysis and risk assessment before we spend another, you know, $20 million, $2 million, or $2 on the program.


It would  be good to get a cost/benefit analysis, indeed! Hell if anyone knows  if the BDO program is actually serving the public in any way! Well, at least it’s not like a story showed up in the New York Times about the BDOs profiling people, or anything.

Look. My fucking Twitter account’s avatar was inspired by the BDOs. It’s an Airport Wizard (from the Insider’s TSA Dictionary). You know what’s just as ridiculous about that today as it was 8 months ago, when I started this blog? The fact that Airport Wizards essentially exist, at a cost of approximately $50,000 per year a pop, on the taxpayer’s dime.

Even BDOs themselves admit that their program is an enormous waste of everyone’s time and money. I should know; I’ve personally known many BDOs. I’ll close this out by giving you some of my favorite quotes from BDOs whom I knew. I could put the actual names to the officers, but we’re not that type of blog.


“What’s working as a BDO like? I’ll tell you what it’s like: walking around all day getting paid a lot of money for doing nothing.”

“Worst part about being a BDO is that it’s boring. Because we really don’t do shit.”

“It’s easy money. The only thing that sucked was losing my seniority when I went from TSO to BDO– I had to work a morning shift for the first 6 months– but I got a good shift now. Yeah [BDO number 1] is right: [laughing] we pretty much do nothing all day.”


In all my years at TSA I did know one BDO who claimed that it was, in fact, somewhat difficult work. In the interest of fairness, I will give you that quote, too:

“It’s walking around all day doing math problems in your head. That’s what being a BDO is like. I’d like to see you try it.”