[Archive Home][Date Prev][Date Next][Index]
"Behavior scrutinized at O'Hare"
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Behavior scrutinized at O'Hare
Federal officers use psychology tactics in search for terrorists
By Jon Hilkevitch
The Chicago (IL) Tribune
Security screeners schooled in the psychology of observation are on the job
at O'Hare International Airport, pulling aside passengers whose behavior may
be a tipoff of hostile intentions, the nation's transportation security
chief told the Tribune Monday.
The federal behavior detection officers are on the lookout for passengers
displaying extraordinary stress and fear, or signs of deception during
questioning, all earmarks of terrorists who may be on scouting missions to
find weak links in airport security, said Kip Hawley, administrator of the
U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
"While we still need to screen baggage and carry-on items, the real focus is
on people and creating a new layer of unpredictability at the security
checkpoints," Hawley said during a visit Monday to O'Hare to see the new
security regimen in action.
"Attacking aviation remains very much on Al Qaeda's radar," Hawley said. "So
we aren't going to let them come to O'Hare or any other airport to case out
the place, only to return later with a live bomb, without us sending out the
message that it's not safe to come here if you are a terrorist."
But critics say the new program, called Screening Passengers by Observation
Technique, or SPOT, doesn't work.
Independent security experts say it is unproven at best, accomplishing
little but to catch common criminals ranging from those with arrest warrants
outstanding to deadbeat dads.
Civil libertarians, meanwhile, contend the behavior detection program
violates constitutional rights. Among their chief concerns is that it could
be easily misused to profile people based on race, ethnicity or religion.
In addition, they question how TSA screeners could possibly separate
stressed-out passengers from terrorists based on a brief observation.
"There are literally millions of people who suffer from flight anxiety,"
said Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil
Liberties Union in Washington. "Which of the people who are sweating or are
nervous are they going to stop?"
By 9:30 a.m. Monday at O'Hare, the line of waiting passengers rushing to get
aboard early flights had thinned and travelers were casually easing their
way through a security checkpoint in the United Airlines terminal.
Except for one man.
He exhibited specific behavior that was beyond the normal stresses that air
travelers endure, according to TSA behavior detection officers, who work in
pairs in order to agree on whether to approach an individual who may pose a
The man's actions were not so blatant that fellow passengers looked askew at
him, and he probably wouldn't have drawn the attention of rank-and-file
federal security screeners at many other airports, either.
But he raised a red flag among the two elite screeners.
"This gentleman met our threshold by exhibiting behaviors requiring
additional screening," said Kenneth MacLeod, 31, a TSA behavior detection
officer, declining further explanation.
MacLeod and his partner, Denise Thieben, pulled the man out of line and
asked a few questions. He told them he is a commodities trader. A search of
his carry-on bags turned up journals about commodities trading.
"His story made sense," Thieben said. "We thanked him and wished him a good
The TSA credits the program with contributing to more than 250 arrests since
it was first tested in 2003 at Logan International Airport in Boston. There
are about 600 behavior detection officers working at more than 40 airports,
said TSA spokesman Christopher White. O'Hare was recently added to the list
with an undisclosed number of the officers.
Screeners selected to become behavior detection officers receive 64 hours of
specialized training, officials said.
But none of five arrests highlighted by the TSA officials Monday involved
In one case, scrutiny by behavior detection officers led to the arrest of a
man at the Boston airport who was carrying large amounts of prescription
medication, more than $20,000 in cash and a passport belonging to another
person, the TSA said.
In another, officials said, TSA behavior detection officers stopped a man at
Dulles International Airport outside Washington with a child he had
New technique is old in Israel
Screening passengers by observing their behavior -- and using interrogation
techniques, if necessary -- marks a level of security that the Israeli
government has employed for years to safeguard its national airline, El Al.
But U.S. officials say the TSA's strategy should not be compared to the
"Our approach focuses strictly on behaviors and not appearance in any way,"
White said. "And it would not be practical to begin conversations with
almost every passenger like the Israelis may do. We focus on people who
stand out from the crowd rather than the entire crowd."
TSA officials also say that by evaluating specific behaviors, their system
circumvents controversial screening methods of the past that critics said
focused on racial or ethnic backgrounds of individuals.
The government dropped the Federal Aviation Administration's passenger
prescreening system because of profiling complaints after the terrorist
attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet that system, called the Computer-Assisted
Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS, identified 10 of the 19 hijackers
as "selectees" who merited closer scrutiny before being allowed to board
"On 9/11, we caught the bad guys at the airports, but we didn't know what we
had," said Douglas Laird, an aviation security consultant based in Nevada
who was one of the architects of the CAPPS program when he was security
director at Northwest Airlines, a post he held until 1995.
Laird said no evidence exists to conclude that the TSA's behavior detection
program is working or a failure.
"The jury is definitely out. The system is unproven," Laird said. "But my
concern is that if you look at past methods of profiling aviation
passengers, the amount of training those [CAPPS] profilers received was much
more comprehensive than the 64 hours in behavior profiling the TSA screeners
are receiving today."
Laird said he supports the TSA's efforts to provide a multilayered approach
to aviation security, in the hope that by overlapping techniques and
strategies the system comes as close as possible to completely protecting
the flying public.
Other new security techniques at O'Hare include the use of ultraviolet
lights that screeners shine on driver's licenses of passengers to detect
fake IDs. The light scopes illuminate holograms embedded in legitimate IDs.
Airport screeners also use special eyepieces, similar to jeweler's loops, to
catch people who make phony ID cards with high-quality laser printers. It
has resulted in the arrest of many college-age travelers who printed up the
phony IDs so they could use them to get into bars during vacation trips,
But Laird cautioned authorities don't want to take their eyes off the
ultimate target -- terrorists. "You can get waylaid by reaching too far and
forgetting the core mission," he said. "I am not sure that the purpose of
the TSA is to identify the guy who has not paid his child support."
Do you have an opinion about this story?
Share it with other readers in our CAA Discussion Forums
Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
If you have any queries regarding this issue, please Email us at email@example.com