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TSA Chat-Downs Examined Amid Racial-Profiling Charges

(Corrects 13th paragraph of story published Sept. 13 on details of behavior-detection scan methods.)

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, responding to complaints of racial profiling by airport behavior-detection officers, has hired a consultant and will alter performance measures to deter the practice.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department includes the TSA, said in an interview yesterday that she’s retained an expert to work with the department’s civil rights section.

John Halinski, the TSA’s deputy administrator, said in a separate interview that the agency will change the program’s metrics, so airport managers won’t think they have to meet quotas for enforcement actions unrelated to terrorism.

“I decided to task our civil rights section and bring in an outside consultant to really look at the program and make sure that we do not engage in impermissible racial profiling, and that the program was bringing security value,” Napolitano said in an interview at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s headquarters in Montreal.

The changes in behavior-detection programs, which include so-called chat-downs used in Boston and Detroit, follow reports last month that TSA officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport targeted Hispanic and black travelers for added questioning.

“As long as we push officers to look for drug smugglers rather than look for terrorists, and we give them a quota of the number of encounters, you can expect to see the result we’re seeing now,” said Rafi Ron, a former security chief at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport who helped set up the TSA’s initial behavior-detection efforts in Boston.

No Terrorists

Chat-downs, which became part of the agency’s behavior- detection strategy last year, are built on a broader program called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique that started in 2004. In its first 4 1/2 years, referrals to law enforcement from SPOT officers led to 1,083 arrests, all on charges other than terrorism, according to the Government Accountability Office. Of 353 arrests between November 2010 and April 2012, 68 percent were for immigration offenses, drug charges or outstanding criminal warrants, according to the GAO.

The complaints in Boston follow protests from travelers about invasive body searches by the TSA at airport checkpoints and arrests of some agency employees on theft and bribery charges. Some lawmakers have renewed calls for the agency to end behavior-detection efforts, which the GAO has said aren’t proven by sound research.

More Training

The TSA is requiring two hours of training for all of the approximately 3,000 U.S. behavior-detection officers in 161 airports on why racial profiling isn’t an effective security tool, according to an agency fact sheet. Managers and officers in Boston and Detroit will get four hours of instruction emphasizing that profiling diminishes TSA’s mission, vision and core values.

“If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences,” David Castelveter, a spokesman, said in a statement. “Officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”

The Boston allegations have been turned over to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general and the GAO for investigation.

Behavior Detection

SPOT is rooted in the theory that terrorists will act differently from normal travelers, by sweating more or making vocal tremors. The idea is that the program will eventually minimize delays to travelers who pose no risk.

Officers scan security lines looking for specific signs or stress, fear or deception, said Stephen Lord, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues. The details are sensitive security information, he said.

“They have this very complicated set of behaviors, they hone in on it, they have this point system, once you exceed the threshold, you pull people aside,” Lord said. “We thought they needed to simplify that.”

Chat-downs involve officers holding short interviews with every passenger in a security line asking questions similar to what Customs officers might ask.

The TSA is looking for abnormal behaviors that terrorists display under scrutiny, Halinski said.

“They may transport drugs one day, it could be money the next, it could be explosives the next day,’ Halinski said. ‘‘We have to look at the possibility this is a person facilitating movement of explosives or some other device that can be used to upset the aviation system.’’

Evolving Threats

The need for behavior-detection programs are clear because aviation has been, along with computer networks, the biggest target for terrorists over the past 3 1/2 years, Napolitano said.

‘‘Nothing we’re doing in the aviation environment is simply for the heck of it,’’ Napolitano said. ‘‘It’s being done in response and to deal with ever-evolving threats.’’

The behavior-detection program fits the TSA’s approach of having layers of security, including luggage-screening technology and explosive-sniffing dogs, Halinski said.

The agency won’t use yardsticks like law-enforcement referrals and arrests to measure the program’s success because that would be counterproductive, he said.

‘‘It’s one we have to keep very, very tight and make sure that we don’t do things that would allow our people to game the system,” he said.

Behavior-detection agents at Newark Liberty International Airport from early 2008 through late 2009 looked for Mexican and Dominican travelers to refer to immigration officials, after managers set quotas and promoted employees who reached them, the Star-Ledger newspaper reported last year, citing a 2010 agency report.

In April, two officers at Honolulu International Airport were accused of targeting Mexican passengers. The TSA said it couldn’t substantiate those allegations.

Newark, Honolulu

The agency found Newark officers failed to follow TSA policies, Castelveter said. They didn’t engage in racial profiling, he said. The behavior-detection workforce in Newark was retrained and a manager was demoted.

TSA leaders aren’t ordering racial profiling, said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Massachusetts chapter. Still, she said, that’s how many new employees have interpreted their mission, believing they need to seek out illegal immigrants or people with criminal warrants.

“What seems to have happened is they were acting on stereotypes and prejudices,” said Wunsch, who said she spoke with eight TSA whistleblowers and a black traveler as part of the group’s investigation in Boston. “They’re like, I’m going to nail this person, they’re more likely to have a warrant.”

‘Crown Jewel’

The program is one of the TSA’s most valuable, said Kip Hawley, who led the agency from July 2005 through January 2009. Behavior-detection officers turn up the best information in the daily intelligence reports read by top agency officials, he said.

“Behavior detection works far better than searching for objects,” Hawley said in an interview. “It’s really the crown jewel of the agency.”

Contrary to the GAO findings, which were reported in May 2010 and updated in congressional testimony Sept. 11, behavior- detection officers have spotted terrorists, Hawley said. They included an al-Qaeda operative who didn’t realize he was under FBI surveillance, Hawley said.

“If we want to get past this idea that we’re going to screen every passenger from head to toe, then we have to put into place other sorts of technologies and skills,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Science Questioned

The GAO isn’t questioning the value of behavior detection and supports what the agency is doing in Boston and Detroit, Lord said. The shortcoming is that SPOT programs haven’t been tested on the scale TSA is using them, he said.

Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, warned of the potential for profiling before chat-downs began. He wrote TSA Administrator John Pistole last month, requesting independent validation of science backing the behavior-detection program, a risk assessment and a cost-benefit analysis.

“We all know that terrorists come from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but the SPOT program seems unable to determine a terrorist threat,” Thompson said in an e-mail. “Additional training cannot cure a program that is inherently flawed.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net; John Hughes in Washington at jhughes5@bloomberg.net; Frederic Tomesco in Montreal at tomesco@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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