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Screeners step up surveillance at airports

PATRICK DRISCOLL / SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS | January 8 2006

Shifty eyes, beads of sweat and hesitant speech have long been some of the clues that police look for to read thoughts.

Now federal officials are stepping up efforts to use the tactic -- called behavior detection -- to spot nervous people at airport checkpoints and pull them aside for questioning or additional screening.

"It helps us work smarter," said Andrea McCauley, spokeswoman with the Transportation Security Administration.

Screeners at about a dozen U.S. airports have been trained in recent years to look for undue stress, fear, deception and other unusual behaviors. In 2006, the program will expand to 40 more airports, though officials won't say where.

If that's what it takes to protect airports from terrorists then so be it, said Sam Hilleary of Michigan as he waited in a ticket line Friday at San Antonio International Airport. "I don't mind it at all."

"Anyone that knows their job to begin with would be doing that anyway," his brother Martin added.

But others are worried that behavior detection can lead to racial profiling.

"It's completely subjective," said Scott Hansen, who oversees profiling issues for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "You just told officers you can interrogate anyone you want. It's really a question of will you have limits on police power or not."

In Massachusetts, the organization filed a lawsuit last year that says the program can easily be abused.

TSA files incident reports to track biographic and demographic data, which will be used to check for possible profiling, McCauley said. But the information is classified.

"This is not based on ethnicity, religion, gender or national origin," she said. "It is simply behavior analysis."

Mark Willis, who flew out of San Antonio on Friday to head home to Maryland, has paid dues to the ACLU for years and is glad they're around. But he isn't so sure he's with the group on this one.

"If the data supports it, I think potentially I could support it," he said.

The behavior detection program is derived from law enforcement techniques worldwide, including procedures used at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. It goes beyond random pat-downs, computer-assisted pre-screening or buzzing sensors.

Selected screeners, based on work history and aptitude, are trained to look for signs of agitation or things out of the ordinary. Sometimes they engage people in casual conversations. Based on observations, they can request searches.

The program started at Boston's Logan International Airport in 2002 and has expanded to airports in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Minneapolis. Experts say the program is good in theory, but they stop there.

TSA might lack the needed years of experience and skills that are consciously developed by law enforcement officers, said David Forbes of the aviation security firm Boyd Forbes Group Inc. in Colorado. "It will take time to establish credibility," he said. "If in the process the TSA is seen to create more rather than fewer irritations to the traveling public, it may not survive."

Douglas Laird of Laird & Associates Inc. in Nevada said behavior detection is just one more layer of security, and much more security is needed.

"I wouldn't put too much faith in it, nor would I say you shouldn't use it," he said.

San Antonio airport Police Chief Ron Bruner said checkpoint screeners will likely get better over time at noticing lack of eye contact, furtive gestures, awkward responses and other signs that someone may be hiding something.

"You begin to get a sixth sense," he said. "You have to develop it to stay safe."

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