Airport Security: The TSA Tries 'Chat-Downs'

Under a TSA pilot program, passengers are questioned in line

The man in the blue uniform wanted to know where Felipe Mejia was going and why. He held Mejia’s gaze, as well as his boarding pass. “I said, ‘Who are you to ask me these questions?’ ” recalls the medical company executive, who was waiting at Boston Logan International Airport on his way to Charleston, S.C. “‘It’s none of your business. I don’t think you have a right to ask me these things.’ ”

The man who questioned Mejia in late August was a Transportation Security Administration officer taking part in a pilot program aimed at identifying suspicious characters as they inch through airport security lines. Since August some travelers at Logan’s Terminal A have been directed to an additional queue for a brief interview with an officer before they reach the conveyor belts and screening machines. A reporter was permitted to observe these interactions, which usually lasted less than a minute, from a distance of about 25 feet. Some passengers, like Mejia, grew visibly angry at the questions. Others, like Mark Aaron, a logistics manager at Ryder System in Raleigh, N.C., didn’t seem much bothered by the latest hassle passengers must endure on the way to the gate. He says his conversation with a TSA officer went something like this: “Why were you here? Where are you from? What brought you here?”

Over the last decade the TSA has largely focused its efforts on detecting dangerous objects instead of dangerous people, says Kip Hawley, the agency’s director from 2005 to 2009. X-rays and walk-through detectors begat explosive-sniffing machines and “naked body” scanners as the agency tried to keep up with the latest in shoe bombs and liquid bombs and underwear bombs. “Every piece of hardware has a vulnerability,” Hawley says. “An al-Qaeda terrorist could determine the weakness of the machinery at checkpoints, and if that’s all we have, it’s not good enough.”

The answer, says John S. Pistole, the agency’s current administrator, is to “get away from the one-size-fits-all” approach. “We want to use intelligence in a more tailored fashion,” he says, similar to the way Israeli security officers conduct extensive interviews of travelers. If the program succeeds, TSA officers someday will be able to quickly assess travelers and allow those deemed harmless to keep their shoes on and their laptops packed and breeze past the scanners, says George Naccara, TSA’s security director at Logan.

That’s a pretty big if. Most people don’t know it, but the TSA has been quietly watching passenger behavior since 2007, with uncertain results. Under a program called SPOT—Screening Passengers by Observation Technique—about 3,000 officers circulate through 160 airports, chatting up travelers and looking for signs of questionable behavior. The program has cost about $1 billion since 2007, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Officers in SPOT and the Boston trial program are “looking for 35 things,” including “microexpressions” of the kind that might give away a good hand in a poker game, says Paul Ekman, a San Francisco psychologist whose company, the Paul Ekman Group, had a $989,100 contract with TSA in 2007 to train SPOT officers. Tip-off behaviors include sweating, posture, eye contact, and vocal tremors, he says. “My research has shown that if you get people to talk, it is harder for them to disguise other signs of mal-intent.”

Yet after studying SPOT, the GAO concluded that it hasn’t proven effective in identifying and stopping potential terrorists. The agency “may be years away from knowing whether there is a scientifically valid basis for using behavior detection techniques to help secure the aviation system against terrorist threats,” Stephen M. Lord, GAO’s director of homeland security, told a congressional committee in July. Representative Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, tried unsuccessfully to talk Pistole out of starting what he disapprovingly calls “chat-downs.”

The Logan trial, scheduled to last 60 days, may run as long as TSA deems necessary to collect data, says Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman. The agency has no plans to expand it beyond Boston until it assesses the results. In the first two weeks of the program, officers chatted-down about 25,000 passengers. Naccara says those who raise the suspicions of a behavioral detection officer receive additional screening, though he won’t say what that means or how many people have been singled out for extra scrutiny. Seven passengers refused to answer questions, he says, prompting hand swabs for evidence of explosives.

Mejia, a frequent flier, objects to the way the TSA treats everyone as a suspect. “We have a Constitution,” he says. “We have the freedom to move about without these inquiries.” The TSA officer who stopped him, hardened against the scorn of frustrated passengers, absorbed his lecture and apparently judged him angry but not a threat. He motioned for Mejia to move along, toward the familiar gray bins and body scanners.


    The bottom line: The TSA’s efforts to identify suspicious travelers with airport Q&As are being met with suspicion inside and outside the government.

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