‘Behavior Recognition’ Added to TSA’s Toolkit for Safer Skies
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
The thwarted 2006 plot to use liquid explosives to blow up planes coming from the United Kingdom to North America is a perfect example of the kind of attack the Transportation Security Administration’s new training regime is aimed at defeating, says TSA chief Kip Hawley.
The plot, for which eight men now stand accused in British courts, allegedly involved using beverage bottles filled with liquid explosives. It was a cause for major changes in airport security procedures because it revealed a flaw in X-ray detection technology: in many cases, it can’t tell harmless liquids from dangerous ones. Hawley said it serves as an example of terrorists knowingly trying to capitalize on such gaps.
“Those guys were designing an attack on us knowing what our systems are,” he said.
TSA’s solution is retraining its entire staff, focusing on “behavior recognition” — watching for problems with airline passengers — and keeping the checkpoints calm so that anomalies stand out more. The idea is to be able to prevent all kind of threats, even those that don’t fit TSA procedures.
“We are retraining the entire workforce, top to bottom, including me, with a new training regime,” he said. “It’s going to be 12 hours, which is a massive amount of training for this workforce, on lessons learned from intel, from bomb detection, explosive detection ... how people will use diversions or other things to try to fake you out and how to get the focus on the anomaly and not get yourself out of your professional zone, no matter what comes at you. ... This is a whole new way of doing business.”
Hawley said the April 1 apprehension of Jamaican national Kevin Brown is an example of the strategy working. Brown entered Orlando International Airport carrying a bag containing bomb ingredients including pipes, ball bearings, batteries, two containers of an unknown liquid, a laptop and information on making bombs, and was apprehended before he made it to an X-ray checkpoint.
One Transportation Security officer spotted Brown and called for assistance. While an officer spoke with Brown, another stood back and watched the man’s reactions.
“There are behaviors that are from hostile intent and there are behaviors that are from stress,” Hawley said. The goal is to be able to tell the difference.
To accompany the new training, TSA is also preparing to reformat its security checkpoints, with additions meant to keep travelers calm. The first of the new “Evolution” checkpoints, due to be installed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport soon, was on display at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in March. It features amenities like soothing music, cool blue lighting, a conveyor belt that automatically returns carry-on scanning bins, and benches in front and after the screening center for passengers to take off and put on their shoes.
BWI staff are currently receiving training, as well as new uniforms, Hawley said. Elements of the new checkpoint will eventually be incorporated at other airports.
The BWI checkpoint will feature both a new, Advanced Technology X-ray machine, as well as a millimeter-wave screener, a device that scans passengers and creates a digital image that shows anything they are concealing. Hawley said the technology rollout is part of TSA’s new strategy.
Due to its intrusive nature, millimeter-wave scanning has raised privacy concerns. Los Angeles International Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport became the two latest U.S. facilities to put the machines to use April 17. At JFK, 323 people went through the scanner the day it debuted, with only five refusing. Those who would not go through the machine were patted down by hand, TSA said.
Currently, TSA uses millimeter wave only for secondary scanning — additional measures for travelers who set off metal detectors or have to be pulled out of lines for other reasons. Hawley said eventually, he wants the machines used for the primary scanning of anyone going through security.
By the end of the year, TSA will have 30 of the machines deployed across the country, and 600 AT X-ray machines.
Despite the deployment of new technology, Hawley said the new behavior recognition training and the emphasis on interception of threats is in part a recognition of the limits on current screening machines. For instance, although TSA has hand-scanners for liquids and is soliciting a machine to automatically scan them, no one has yet come up with a solution to build that capability into the AT X-ray machines or created a separate device that can do the job automatically.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff alluded to the same issue earlier this month, when he told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee that TSA is focusing on developing the next generation of technology, rather than purchasing much more of the current one.
On Friday, Hawley discussed another high-priority technology that he said is not yet ready for deployment: a system that could protect commercial aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles during take-offs or landings at airports.
“I don’t see a technology solution that will happen while this administration is in office,” he said.
The equipment is still in the developmental phase, and it is highly unlikely that TSA will seek any kind of large purchase this year, he said. TSA is not at the point where it is even assessing what it affordable. It is just looking for reliable solutions, Hawley said.
“I think everyone’s pretty confident that the technology issues will be solved,” he said. “They’re just not yet.”
In the meantime, he said, TSA has mapped out all of the spots around U.S. airports that could give someone with a shoulder-fired missile a decent shot, Hawley said. If there is intelligence indicating a threat, the agency will post patrols at those spots, and it is working with the intelligence community and the State Department to buy them up, Hawley said.
“It’s not as glamorous, but it is a very effective measure,” he said.