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Faces, Too, Are Searched at U.S. Airports

NY Times / ERIC LIPTON | August 17 2006

Comment: As soon as you walk into an airport you are made to feel as if you are already a criminal. Add to that the rampant fearmongering about your plane potentially blowing up in mid-air and who isn't going to be nervous before boarding an aircraft?

DULLES, Va., Aug. 16 — As the man approached the airport security checkpoint here on Wednesday, he kept picking up and putting down his backpack, touching his fingers to his chin, rubbing some object in his hands and finally reaching for his pack of cigarettes, even though smoking was not allowed.

Two Transportation Security Administration officers stood nearby, nearly motionless and silent, gazing straight at him. Then, with a nod, they moved in, chatting briefly with the man, and then swiftly pulled him aside for an intense search.

Another airline passenger had just made the acquaintance of the transportation agency’s “behavior detection officers.”

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

So far, these specially trained officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide, including Dulles International Airport here outside Washington, and they represent just a tiny percentage of the transportation agency’s 43,000 screeners.

But after the reported liquid bomb plot in Britain, agency 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. “You just don’t know what I am going to see.”

Even in its infancy, the program has elicited some protests.

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 said that the program, if not run properly, could turn into another version of racial profiling.

Other concerns were raised this week by two of the foremost proponents of the techniques, a former Israeli security official and a behavioral psychologist who developed the system of observing involuntarily muscular reactions to gauge a person’s state of mind.

They said in interviews that the agency’s approach puts too little emphasis on the follow-up interview and relies on a behavior-scoring system that is not necessarily applicable to airports.

“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 T.S.A. set up its program. “We could do much better, and we should because it could save lives.”

Agency officials said they recognize that the program, which they call Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, may not yet be perfect. But they added that they were constantly making adjustments and that they were convinced that it was a valuable addition to their security tool chest.

“There are infinite ways to find things to use as a weapon and infinite ways to hide them,” said the director of the T.S.A., Kip Hawley, in an interview this week. “But if you can identify the individual, it is by far the better way to find the threat.”

The American version of the airport behavior observation program got its start in Boston, said Thomas G. Robbins, former commander of the Logan International Airport police.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he said, state police officers there wondered whether a technique they had long used to try to identify drug couriers at the airport might also work for terrorists. 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, Mr. Robbins said. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.

The Transportation Security Administration, starting last December, 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.

T.S.A. 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, as they did with the man at Dulles on Wednesday. Or if the suspicion is serious enough, they call the local police assigned to the airport to take over the inquiry.

In nine months — a period in which about seven million people have flown out of Dulles — several hundred people have been referred for intense screening, and about 50 have been turned over to the police for follow-up questioning, said John F. Lenihan, the transportation agency’s security director at Dulles.

Of those, half a dozen have faced charges or other law enforcement follow-up, he said, because the behavior detection officials succeeded in picking out people who had a reason to be nervous, generally because of immigration matters, outstanding warrants or forged documents.

“It is an extra layer of security that is on top of what we have,” Mr. Hawley said of the program.

But Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, who was a consultant who helped train the officers at Logan Airport, said that the agency’s system, while a welcome improvement to airport security, was still flawed. Most importantly, he said, too few of the passengers pulled aside were more formally questioned as in the Israeli system, and when questioning was done, it was handled by local police officers who might not have had the necessary behavioral analysis skills.

He cited the case of Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber, who aroused suspicion when he arrived at Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris, but was ultimately allowed to board after the police had questioned him.

“If you don’t do the interviews properly, you are missing what is probably the most important and powerful part of the procedure,” he said.

Another concern was raised by Mr. Ekman, who developed some of the facial analysis tools that the T.S.A. screeners were being trained to use — for example, fear is manifested by eyebrows raised and drawn together, a raised upper eyelid and lips drawn back toward the ears. He said the point system that the T.S.A. had set up was based on facial reactions that occurred in sit-down interviews, not while people were standing in line at the airport.

“We have no basis other than the seat of our pants to know how many points should be given to any one thing,” he said.

The technique has already 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.

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 Mr. Downing’s identification, asking again as he approached a taxi and then telling him he would be “going downtown” unless he provided it. Mr. Downing was let go after he showed his identification, but the encounter led to the lawsuit.

“There is a significant prospect this security method is going to be applied in a discriminatory manner,” said John Reinstein, an A.C.L.U. lawyer handling Mr. Downing’s case. “It introduces into the screening system a number of highly subjective elements left to the discretion of the individual officer.”

T.S.A. officials, who were not involved in the incident with Mr. Downing, said they recognized that people at airports were often agitated — they may be late for flights, taking an emergency trip or simply scared of flying.

They said they were committed to ensuring the program was 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.

But they acknowledged that some entirely innocent parties, like the man at Dulles on Wednesday, would probably be pulled aside. That passenger, whom officials would not identify, was allowed to catch his flight after a thorough search.

“It is like throwing a big fishing net over the side of the boat: You catch what you catch,” said Carl Maccario, an agency official helping manage the SPOT teams. “But hopefully within that net is a terrorist.”

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