TSA Deploys Airport Behavior Screeners
By DAVID B. CARUSO - April 4, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) — To the untrained eye, the man looked like any other
traveler as he waited in line at Kennedy Airport. But something about
the way he was acting caught the attention of two security screeners.
For 16 minutes, they questioned him, scanned every inch of his body
twice with a metal-detecting wand and emptied his carry-on bag onto a
table. Out came a car stereo with wires dangling from it. The man was
eventually found to have done nothing wrong — he said he had pulled the
stereo out of his car because he was afraid it would get stolen — and he
was sent on his way.
But it's the type of scene that has been unfolding on a regular basis
over the past four years at the nation's major airports under a rapidly
expanding "behavior detection" program set up by the Transportation
Security Administration to spot terrorists or other dangerous air
travelers by way of subtle clues in the way they act.
The agency's efforts drew attention this week when screeners trained
in behavior detection in Orlando arrested an Army veteran after he tried
to check luggage containing pipe bomb-making materials onto a flight to
But that collar was something of a rarity. In the four years since
the program was launched, the TSA has yet to encounter any would-be
suicide bombers. The most common catches have been people carrying fake
IDs. Of the more than 104,000 air travelers who were plucked out of
security lines and subjected to a more intense level of screening
because of something suspicious in their demeanor, fewer than 700 were
ultimately arrested, officials said.
Many more — about 9,300 — revealed something during the screening
process that caused the TSA to call in law enforcement for a more
thorough investigation. About half of those passengers weren't suspected
of any particular crime, but behaved suspiciously enough that screeners
thought police should be called anyway. More than half of the other
referrals involved people carrying fraudulent documents, the TSA said.
A small percentage involved drugs, contraband currency, immigration
violations, or discoveries that a passenger was wanted by police. Dubbed
the SPOT program, for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques,
the effort is shrouded in some secrecy that makes it difficult to
evaluate its worth.
TSA officials refuse to say exactly what sort of behavior can make
them suspicious, but part of the effort relies on watching for fleeting
facial expressions that indicate a person is under stress and has
something to hide. Behavior agents also casually question people about
where they are headed and look for clues in their responses.
Federal officials said the program, which requested a $45 million
budget this year, is a worthwhile complement to random searches and an
alternative to racial profiling. But the program has its doubters. Barry
Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union said the TSA has
released too little information about its behavioral analysis techniques
to assess whether the program works, or is "just for show." "Whether
this is anything more than profiling under another name, we don't know,"
The TSA began experimenting with behavior agents in Boston nearly
five years ago, in part because of the perceived success of a similar
program in Israel. Today, a variety of security consultants offer
training in various methods of deception detection, including University
of California-San Francisco professor Paul Ekman and Rafi Ron, former
security director at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Most passengers who are pulled aside for extra questioning and a
search of their carry-on luggage are allowed to continue to their
flights, and almost none are ever told why they were stopped. Unlike
police officers, who do not have the right to stop someone without cause
on the street, TSA agents are legally allowed to thoroughly search
someone trying to board a plane and interrogate them at length, even if
there is no evidence they have broken any law.
Homeland Security officials are pleased enough with the results that
they plan to increase the number of behavioral detection officers
substantially in the coming months. Today, there are about 1,200 of the
agents at 70 large airports. That number is expected to double to 2,400
at 160 airports by September, and grow to 4,000 by mid-2009. Michigan
State University professor Timothy Levine, who studies deception
detection, said scientists are split over whether it is possible to
train people to recognize terrorist operatives or nervous criminals by
observing their demeanor.
"I'm a skeptic," Levine said. "There are a lot of reasons for people
to be emotional or aroused, other than deception. Especially at
airports." He said his own research has suggested that people do
commonly offer up behavioral clues when they are trying to hide
something. "But they aren't big. They are subtle and they vary
tremendously, by situation, people and context," he said. Levine added,
though, that the program might still be worth a shot. "Maybe it wouldn't
catch the smooth operative," he said. But even a poorly trained agent,
he said, might have luck catching someone like "shoe bomber" Richard
The TSA invited The Associated Press to Kennedy Airport late last
month to watch two of its agents, James Rivera and Pat Marcoux, at work.
The pair said that, over the years, they have grabbed people trying to
carry huge amounts of currency through customs without reporting it, and
seen all manner of strange items stashed in people's luggage, including
a book infested with roaches. "There's always a reason why you're
exhibiting that behavior that catches our attention," Rivera said.
"Maybe it's just because you're having problems at home." It is
difficult, even while watching behavior detection officers work, to
assess just what type of behavior triggers their interest. Their style
seemed deliberately low-key. Working quietly in tandem, Rivera and
Marcoux stopped one pair of smiling young men after they passed through
the metal detectors and chatted them up for about 10 minutes while they
searched their luggage. They were eventually allowed to continue to
The man with the car radio was singled out for tougher screening
before he had even put his bag on the belt for the X-ray machine. But
Rivera and Marcoux would not say what raised their suspicions. Besides
scanning him with a wand, and running hands along the outside of his
legs to check for weapons, the agents handled his clothing, flipped
through a book in his bag and questioned him about the purpose of his
In the end, agents got answers that explained why the man had seemed
out of sorts. They learned that he was traveling to the Dominican
Republic to visit a wife he hadn't seen in a year and was a little
anxious about the trip. They checked his ID and let him go. He left with
a handshake and a smile.
After all, Marcoux said, "there is a customer service aspect to the
job." "People are stressed enough already. They don't need us to
escalate the situation," Rivera said.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.
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