New TSA unit focuses on suspicious behavior
Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the Transportation Security Administration is experimenting with a new squad whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone acting suspicious.
So far, these specially trained officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide, including Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., and they represent just a tiny percentage of the TSA’s 43,000 screeners, The New York Times reports.
After the alleged terrorist plot, officials say they want to have hundreds of behavior detection officers trained by the end of next year and deployed at most of the nation’s biggest airports.
“The observation of human behavior is probably the hardest thing to defeat,” said Waverly Cousin, a former police officer and checkpoint screener who is now the supervisor of the behavior detection unit at Dulles.
At one airport, passengers singled out solely because of their behavior have at times been threatened with detention if they did not cooperate, raising constitutional issues that are already being argued in court. Some civil liberties experts say the program, if not run properly, could turn into another version of racial profiling, the newspaper reports.
“It may be the best that can be done now, but it is not nearly good enough,” said Paul Ekman, a retired psychology professor from the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in detecting lies and deceit, and has helped the TSA set up its program. “We could do much better, and we should because it could save lives.”
The TSA program, called “Screening Passengers by Observation Technique,” or SPOT, may not yet be perfect. But they added that they are constantly making adjustments and they are convinced that it was a valuable addition to airport security.
“There are infinite ways to find things to use as a weapon and infinite ways to hide them,” TSA Director Kip Hawley says. “But if you can identify the individual, it is by far the better way to find the threat.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, state police officers at Logan Internation Airport in Boston wondered whether a technique they had long used to try to identify drug couriers at the airport might also work for terrorists, the Times reports. The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking questions like “What did you see in Boston?” followed perhaps by “Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?”
The questions themselves are not significant, says Thomas G. Robbins, former commander of the Logan International Airport police. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.
Starting last December, TSA decided to try out the approach at about a dozen airports, including Logan. At each airport, it used six officers who had once been routine screeners, had received an extra four days of classroom training in observation and questioning techniques, and had three days of field practice.
TSA officers do not have law enforcement powers, so if they observe someone suspicious, they can chat with the person but cannot conduct a more formal interrogation. That leaves them with the option of requiring the passenger to go through a more intense checkpoint search.
“Behavior pattern recognition techniques implemented by trained security and non-security personnel have proven to be a valuable measure in the detection and prevention of terrorist attacks in public facilities,” security specialist Rafi Ron, president of consulting firm New Age Security Solutions, McLean, Va., told GOVERNMENT SECURITY following the London transit attacks last year.
Ron helped train the officers at Logan in a technique called Behavior Pattern Recognition (BPR). Training in BPR aims to give people objective ways of evaluating behavior and identifying what is suspicious. “It is a methodology for identifying suspicious people that you want to pay more attention to,” Ron says. View a detailed description of BPR, and how it is being used at Logan and other places like the Statue of Liberty.
The technique has produced at least one lawsuit, filed in Boston. The state police at Logan Airport there happened to pick out, based on behavior observations, the national coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling.
According to the New York Times report, the coordinator, King Downing, who is black, had just left a flight when he stopped to make a phone call and noticed that a police officer was listening in, the lawsuit says. When the call ended, the officer demanded Downing’s identification, asking again as he approached a taxi and then telling him he would be “going downtown” unless he provided it. Downing was let go after he showed his identification, but the encounter led to the lawsuit.
TSA officials, who were not involved in the incident with Downing, say they recognize that people at airports are often agitated — they may be late for flights, taking an emergency trip or simply scared of flying.
TSA says it’s committed to ensuring the program is not discriminatory and would be monitoring the work of the SPOT teams to ensure that the officers were acting upon the established indicators and not any racial or ethnic bias.