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Airport security uses talk as tactic

Thomas Frank, USA TODAY | December 30 2005

The Transportation Security Administration plans to train screeners at 40 major airports next year to pick out possible terrorists by engaging travelers in a casual conversation to detect whether a person appears nervous or evasive and needs extra scrutiny.

The new security technique, already in use at some airports, adds a psychological dimension to screening by trying to find high-risk passengers based on how they act at checkpoints or boarding gates. (Related story: Body language can blow suspects' cover)

Passengers who raise suspicions will undergo extra physical screening and could face police questioning.

Airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit and Miami recently began using the technique.

Some airport and transit police already look for people acting oddly — such as wearing a heavy coat in the summer or appearing to be doing surveillance — and question them about travel plans.

"I don't want (officers) just sitting there waiting for a call to come in. I want them observing people, observing their behavior and engaging them in conversation. They're looking for people whose activities don't look right," says Alvy Dodson, public safety director at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Last year, 70% of DFW's 167 airport police were trained in the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the technique leads to racial profiling and has sued to stop a behavior-screening program run by the Massachusetts State Police at Boston's Logan International Airport. That program, the first at a U.S. airport when it began in 2002, was challenged last year after a black ACLU official said he was questioned and threatened with arrest if he didn't show identification.

"If you're going to allow police to make searches, question people and even make arrests based on criteria rather than actual evidence of criminality, you're going to have racial profiling," says Barry Steinhardt, a privacy law specialist at the ACLU.

Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Peter DiDomenica calls the program "an antidote to racial profiling" that focuses on "objective behavioral characteristics." He says the program has curbed racial profiling "because we've educated people."

Behavior detection is routine in security-conscious countries such as Israel, where air travelers routinely face aggressive questioning.

U.S. Customs officers have long asked arriving travelers questions, often in random order. If a person gives "stumbling answers," that could indicate the person has fraudulent travel documents or plans to overstay a visa, says Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kelly Klundt.

The TSA also began using behavior detection at Logan in 2003 and last year at airports in Warwick, R.I., and Portland, Maine. Mass transit systems in New York City and Washington adopted the technique after train bombings in Madrid and London.

Concerns about racial profiling have meant "there's been a lot of reluctance in TSA to expand this," says George Naccara, TSA security director at Logan.

Naccara says he persuaded TSA chief Kip Hawley to try behavior detection at numerous high-risk airports. "It's another effective layer of security which is relatively cheap," Naccara says.

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