TSA Screeners Are SPOT On…or are they?

TSA Screeners


Air travel is loads of fun. It’s a wonderful experience that we all love to share with our families. It’s exciting. It’s breathtaking to soar among the clouds, leaving our cares behind. And I think it’s pretty darn cool how everyone dresses up in their fanciest and finest apparel to zip across the country. And the service provided by the airlines…why it’s second to none. Oh, that’s right, we mustn’t forget about those TSA agents. Aren’t they the most polite and happy people you’ve ever encountered in your entire life? Yes indeed, I sure do love me some air travel.

Passengers are also happy and polite creatures, especially those with small crying children. Then there’s the guy seated next to you who hasn’t bathed since Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Or, how about the man seated behind you? You know, the guy with the bladder trouble who absolutely must visit the restroom every ten minutes, and to help his lard a** up, he grabs your seat-back pulling you downward until the top of your head is resting at his crotch. Then he kindly releases the spring-loaded chair sending you and your two ounce cup of Diet Coke into the next row.

As most of you are aware, flying these days is not even remotely close to the good old days author Donald Bain wrote about in his popular bestselling book Coffee, Tea, or Me. In fact, air travel today can be summed up in one word…RUDE. Flight attendants are rude. Passengers are rude. Vendors are rude. Screeners are rude. Luggage handlers are rude. And they all make me want to be rude right back.

The most important thing, though, is that we’re all much safer today than we were back in the day when we could leave on our shoes and weren’t groped and leered at by security folks who possess x-ray vision. Makes me feel safer. How about you?

Okay, before I completely explode thinking about the joys of air travel, lets talk about the things TSA does to make us safe when flying the friendly skies (besides groping and checking out my naked and ever-so-flattering nude waistline).

SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Technique) is one of the tactics TSA agents use to spot terrorists. It’s a foolproof (yeah, right) method of identifying people who want to do us harm, and the idea is quite simple. Agents randomly observe and chat with travelers, checking for signs of suspicious behavior. You know, things like rapid eye movement and excessive perspiration.

Well, all that’s fine and dandy, however, I just looked at the warning labels on two of my medications and, please, take a wild guess at the side effects. Yep….excessive perspiration and rapid eye movement. I guess it’s a requirement that all terrorists consume similar medications before stuffing their shoes and underwear with explosives.

TSA agents are on high alert for a passenger’s rapid eye movement

TSA SPOT experts are also trained to speak with travelers to see if they can pick up on other indicators of terrorist-type intent. Now these really do make sense—they watch our facial expressions for signs of fear, anger, surprise and/or contempt. Now, I ask you, who, after being groped, prodded, scanned and had their unmentionables pawed by a beady-eyed, hairy-armed female TSA agent, is not angry, surprised, a bit fearful, and filled to the brim with contempt?

But, the program is producing fantastic results. So far, out of the tens of thousands of people who’ve been referred for secondary screening based on TSA agent scrutiny, only 1083 have been arrested. HOWEVER, the arrests were for drug and weapons violations, and for outstanding warrants. Not a single terrorist has been identified by the more than 2,800 TSA agents employing the SPOT techniques. Not one. But that’s okay because, to date the program has only cost taxpayers a mere $878 million. The average street cop could catch that many drug dealers and wanted criminals in a single week with one arm tied behind his/her back. And all it would cost taxpayers is a few hundred dollars, some gas for a patrol car, and maybe a meal or two at a local Denny’s.

You should be aware that, if you are referred to a secondary screening based on an agent’s expert assessment of your behavior, certain personal information is obtained during that stage of the game. Things like:

– first, middle, and last names

– aliases and nicknames

– home and business addresses and phone numbers

– employer information

– identification numbers such as Social Security Number, drivers license number or passport number

– date and place of birth

– languages spoken

– nationality

– age

– sex

– race

– height and weight

– eye color

– hair color, style and length; and facial hair, scars, tattoos and piercings, clothing (including colors and patterns) and eyewear

– purpose for travel and contact information

– photographs of any prohibited items, associated carry-on bags, and boarding documents

– identifying information for traveling companion

The above information (your personal information) is entered into a database (the hard copy is destroyed…whoopee) that’s accessible by law enforcement, Office of Intelligence (I’ll hold my tongue on this one), and many, many more, including contractors for the NSA (does the name Snowden ring a bell?). Your information is held in the database for 15 years, or longer.

You are not permitted to decline giving this information to TSA, even though no crime is involved. You have no say so as to who has access to your information.

But please don’t be alarmed, because the SPOT system is foolproof. After all, it’s based on a TSA officer’s observance and interpretation of human behavior, not science.

But I’m okay with all of this because TSA agents are the experts, right? They’re always on their toes, keeping us safe no matter what.

I know I sure feel safer knowing they’re on the job.


16 replies
  1. Ellen Breen
    Ellen Breen says:

    Lee, last week my husband and I flew home to the States from Dublin When we attempted to print our boarding passes at the kiosk, it said I could do it, but he MUST only check in and get boarding pass from the counter

    Okay turns out he was randomly preselected to get extra screening by the TSA –wanding and pat down and all the est.

    I was shaking my head. They KNEW we were traveling together. Sould my retired math professor husband be carrying anything illegal or banned–he could have simply handed it off to me, and we would have been good to go.

    Why give advance warning? And it took 3 plus hours to get through all the security ( including Irish ,) US Customs preclearance I’m still puzzled by this

    and our own TS didn’t require me to put my little zip lock bag out, or my net book–simply asked me if I had any liquids



  2. E.S. Abramson
    E.S. Abramson says:

    The Israelis do not use Xray machines. Lod Airport in Tel Aviv is patrolled by soldiers and explosive sniffing dogs. Israeli soldiers are trained to spot terrorists via their actions, dress, and speech. i.e. Many terrorists have been caught because on a hot day they wore a coat to hide the explosives they were carrying. Others were caught watching restaurants and tourist busses. They looked out of place in the setting they were in. There is no such thing as refusing to answer questions or submit your passport for examination. This is an absolute requirement there.

  3. Gina Dolin
    Gina Dolin says:

    Hi All

    You should all feel safer now. Last week returning from Chicago. I had a attend a farmer’s market where I purchased the best butter I had ever tasted. The TSA took it claiming it was a gel.

    If the government wants the TSA to be effective I recommend better training and wages. Other wise lets save the tax payer money and fire 90% and just leave the x-ray machines

  4. Chris Phipps
    Chris Phipps says:

    I don’t know if they still do this, but ten years ago, I got a call that my sister had died. I immediately bought one-way tickets for me and my husband (both of us 65+), from Sacramento to Houston. Little did I know that I’d just done two things that guaranteed we would be pulled out for more screening: Buying last minute tickets and buying one-way tickets.
    I almost made matters worse by laughing when I imagined the conversation between terrorists:
    “Don’t buy the tickets until you’re sure that’s the day you want to die.”
    “Yeah, and don’t waste money on buying a return ticket.”

  5. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    I so glad I don’t fly these days. I’m not sure if I want to laugh at the insanity of this or cry because I know it’s all true. I want to be safe, but I also know that idiots are hired to jobs that should be given to people who have some common sense. But as Hubby says, “those people don’t exist anymore.”

  6. Linda Wright
    Linda Wright says:

    And if you are returning to US from another country, you go through their security screening. Then,about 30 minutes before you board your flight,TSA screeners set up tables so they can paw through your carry on bags and then wand you or pat you down. So if you bought water or food for the flight, it will be confiscated. More of the joys of air travel.

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    The thing about this, Curious, is that the information is not obtained formally. Instead, it’s through observation (listening to you interacting with others, etc.), and through casual conversation between TSA and an unsuspecting traveler, such as:

    TSA – “Nice weather today.”
    Traveler “Yes, it is.”
    TSA – “Is it raining where you’re headed?”
    Traveler – “No, I understand today it is very sunny in Iran.”
    TSA – “Oh, are you from there, or just heading over on a business trip?”
    Traveler – “I was born in Iran, but my sleeper cell pals here in the states were running low on supplies, so I came over to replenish their exploding underwear stockpiles.”

    Therefore, you aren’t given an opportunity to decline because you aren’t aware that your information is secretly headed to a permanent record. If for some reason you do decline to answer questions and are referred to law enforcement, you are then subject to law enforcement protocols. And we all know how things go for people suspected of doing harm to the U.S.

    TSA agents are not partial to any ethnicity or to any particular airline. They treat everyone as if they’re the enemy.

    Travelers really have no choice other than to subject themselves to the ways of TSA. It’s either that, or walk to Australia.

  8. CuriousandDisgusted
    CuriousandDisgusted says:

    A couple more things — I’d love some information on how people are treated if they are traveling on Canadian and British and other European airlines. Are they treated better & with more respect? I might put up with more somewhere else than I would here since we were supposed to have all those wonderful rights in the Bill of Rights and I refuse to give them up. (Thus I do not fly in this era. Businesses who mistreat me don’t get a dime from me and that to me now is the airline industry.)

    I never thought I’d see the day when the U.S. citizenry would tolerate the mistreatment you described and that your readers described.

    I want to see Europe again someday but only when and if I can find a way there that does not require me to tolerate the 21st century misbehaviors. I actually deeply envy my relatives who missed this era. I’d rather have died young and lived happy like they did.

  9. CuriousandDisgusted
    CuriousandDisgusted says:

    Thanks for this most interesting post, Lee. Love your blog always.

    Sooooo, what exactly happens to those who refuse to say what languages they speak or where they work? I’m really curious at what point people can (politely) stand up for their (former) rights and not be hauled away. For me, I’m not planning to say what lanugages, if any besides English, I speak until my memoir (if I ever write one) comes out.

    Again, thanks always!

  10. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    Wouldn’t a terrorist be trained NOT to act in a suspecious matter, to avoid rapid eye movement and stay calm? After all, the Boston Marathon bombers didn’t draw attention to themselves before they acted. So the SPOT technique is worthless because terroists won’t behave that way.

  11. charlotte mann
    charlotte mann says:

    LOL! I’ll try to memorize your post, Lee, and mutter it as a mantra next time I’m strip searched in the name of (in)security. My husband and I sometimes travel in Buddhist robes, well, because we’re Buddhist clergy. It’s like waving a red flag at n already steamed-up bull. What we’ve been through, especially what he has been subjected to, belongs in porn fiction, not our public travel venues.

  12. Larkin
    Larkin says:

    This is one of those “don’t get me started” topics, Lee.

    In The High and The Mighty, Marlene Dietrich traveled in a designer suit with a fur for detail, and a hat with a veil, and all the men wore suits. They were treated handsomely!

    Now–LAX is the west coast equivalent of the rail head outside the feeder lots in the Panhandle. Not nice. And not much nicer for those of us who come to fetch the survivors (passengers). Makes me think of MATS flights as luxurious and cordial.

    Yeah. See there? Ya got me started. You’re good at that.

  13. Evil Robot Liz
    Evil Robot Liz says:

    I remember travelling with my daughter about five years ago. We flew from Orlando to visit my brother in Philly. On the return trip, the fine screeners at Philly International terrified me. Seriously, the name on my daughter’s ticket was hers, but, since she had a short pixie haircut and was wearing a black coat, the brain trust in security demanded to know why I was traveling with a boy.
    “I’m traveling with my daughter,” I insisted.
    “No, you’se traveling with a little boy,” he said to me. “If that be your daughter, why she wearin’ a mannish coat.”
    “A mannish coat?” I was gobsmacked.
    “Yeah, girls be wearing pink and sh*t — this a boy.”
    As God is my witness, the conversation continued to deteriorate until I threatened to call the police (after he suggested we pull down her pants to PROVE she was a boy.)
    Yeah, I feel safer with the TSA.

  14. Belinda
    Belinda says:

    And these days we’re paying some pretty serious coin for all of these privileges! I’m happy we’ve found a favourite place to vacation which is a road-trip away, rather that a flight.

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