TSA places behavior observation teams in more airports

Published 3 January 2008

TSA behavior observers now operate in more than fifty U.S. airports; since January 2006, behavior-detection officers have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening; of those, about 600 to 700 were arrested on a variety of charges

You probably heard this line about a man running into a psychiatrist acquaintance of his on the street; the man says “Good Morning,” and the psychiatrist, after returning his greeting, walks away, thinking: “I wonder what he means by that.” It may well be the same with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers strolling the ticket counters in several U.S. airports wishing passngers a happy new year and asking them where they are traveling. It may very well be be more than just Christmas spirit. We have written about how more and more airports are beginning to augment security by adding behavioral observation of passengers to the scanning of these passengers’ bodies and luggage. The teams of TSA behavior-detection officers are specially trained to discern the subtlest suspicious behaviors. TSA officials will not reveal specific behaviors identified by the program — called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Technique) — which are considered indicators of possible terrorist intent. Seattle PI’s Paul Shukovsky writes that the main task is to recognize microfacial expressions — a flash of feelings which in a fraction of a second reflects emotions such as fear, anger, surprise, or contempt, said Carl Maccario, who helped start the program for TSA. “In the SPOT program, we have a conversation with (passengers) and we ask them about their trip,” said Maccario from his office in Boston. “When someone lies or tries to be deceptive, … there are behavior cues that show it. … A brief flash of fear.” Such people are referred for secondary screening, which can include a pat-down search and an X-ray exam. The microfacial expressions, he said, are the same across many cultures.

Since January 2006, behavior-detection officers have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening, Maccario said. Of those, about 600 to 700 were arrested on a variety of charges, including possession of drugs, weapons violations and outstanding warrants. Shukovsky writes that Maccario will not say whether the teams have disrupted any terrorist operations, but he did say that there are active counterterrorism investigations under way that began with referrals from the program.

SPOT began spreading out to airports across the nation two years after initial testing began in 2003 in Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Maine. It is now operating at more than fifty airports and continues to grow. “It’s almost irrelevant what your answers are,” Maccario said. “It’s more relevant how you respond. Vague, evasive responses — fear shows itself. When you do this long enough, you see it right away.” Maccario emphasized that the program takes into account the typical stress many of us experience when traveling, especially during the holidays. Ordinary people who are feeling anxious are “much more open with their body movements and their facial expressions as compared to an operational terrorist (thinking) ‘I’ve got to defeat security,’ ” Maccario said. “We’re looking for behavior indicators that show a certain level of stress, fear or anxiety above and beyond that shown by an anxious member of the traveling public.” The detection teams look for those indicators to spike when a traveler with something to hide approaches security checkpoints. Part of the SPOT training is a cultural awareness component, Maccario said. For example, in some cultures people do not make eye contact with people in authority. To emphasize the sensitivity TSA is bringing to the program, he recalled a meeting with an association for people with Tourette’s disorder to assure them that having a tic will not result in a pat-down. The TSA considers the program a powerful tool to root out terrorists, but also an antidote to racial profiling. “We don’t care where you are from,” Maccario said. “It’s no longer subjective. If you are acting a certain way, that’s what is going to attract our attention. “There is no reliable picture of a terrorist,” he added, citing American terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and “the fact that al-Qaida continues to recruit people that blend into society.”