More than ever, they're watching

Thursday, June 19, 2008 3:11 AM
By Kevin Landers

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The latest advice for business travelers rushing to catch a flight in Columbus might sound like the tagline in a deodorant commercial: Don't let them see you sweat.

Port Columbus recently began participating in a federal security program in which specially trained screeners, known as behavior-detection officers, scrutinize not only carry-on bags but facial expressions, gestures and speech patterns.

Licking chapped lips? Winded from your jog from the long-term parking lot? Preoccupied with that sales presentation you'll be giving in the morning?

If so, you might be a candidate for extra scrutiny.

The Transportation Security Administration began testing the program in 2003 at Boston's Logan International Airport, where two of the Sept. 11 hijacking teams began their operations.

Dubbed SPOT -- Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques -- the program is in place at more than 80 U.S. airports, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told a congressional committee recently.

At Port Columbus, 10 behavior-detection officers roam the ticketing area, boarding gates and parking garage, searching for visual or verbal cues that could betray what the TSA characterizes as "hostile intent."

"We observe any kinds of behaviors that are out of the ordinary," said Michelle Boldt, a behavior-detection officer at Port Columbus and one of about 1,300 such screeners nationwide.

"Somebody who is a terrorist or somebody who is trying to get through with criminal activity is going to display many more behaviors, not even knowing about it."

Since the SPOT program was fully implemented at Port Columbus in February, at least 25 passengers have been pulled out of checkpoint lines for additional questioning, pat-down searches and more-rigorous luggage inspections, TSA records show.

One person was perceived to be blinking excessively. Another man's Adam's apple was thought to be moving up and down too vigorously.

Citing security reasons, the TSA won't specify what its officers are looking for.

The SPOT program is based on the research of Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco and the creator of the Facial Action Coding System, which he describes as "a catalog of every conceivable facial expression."

Ekman continues to work with the TSA and its behavior-detection trainees.

"They're paying attention to gaze direction, to head movement, to posture, to the clothing you're wearing, who you're talking to or who you're not talking to, to what you're holding and to your facial expressions," he said.

The techniques have proved effective, TSA officials say.

Since the SPOT program ramped up nationally two years ago, about 104,000 air travelers have been flagged for more intense screenings, the Associated Press has reported.

More than 9,300 of those passengers revealed something during the follow-up checks that caused the TSA to summon law enforcement for a more thorough investigation, and about 700 ultimately were arrested, the majority for carrying fake IDs, possessing drugs or trying to enter the country illegally.

Until this spring, though, the SPOT program never had produced any evidence of a passenger acting with what could be construed as hostile intent.

On April 1, an Army veteran named Kevin Brown caught the attention of behavior-detection officers at Florida's Orlando International Airport. A search of Brown's checked luggage turned up galvanized pipes, end caps, BB pellets, a model-rocket igniter and two vodka bottles containing flammable nitromethane.

Brown was arrested and charged with attempting to place an explosive or incendiary device on an aircraft.

"Thanks to the quick actions of the Orlando TSA behavior-detection team, the Orlando Police Department, the Orange County Bomb Squad and the FBI, this situation had a happy, safe ending -- all without closing a single checkpoint or delaying more than Brown's flight," the TSA said in a news release.

On its blog, "Evolution of Security," the agency proclaimed, "It's a further testament that the behavior-detection program works."

So far, at Port Columbus, the program hasn't yielded any would-be terrorists.

According to reports filed by the Columbus Regional Airport Authority police, one person deemed suspicious did turn out to be the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant, and a few people have had expired driver's licenses and visas.

Another individual was found to be carrying about $2,360 in cash, which, while intriguing, is hardly illegal.

Critics say the SPOT program is a waste of time and effort and, more troubling, a dangerous invasion of privacy.

"We shouldn't expect people who are sweating to be suspicious on a flight," said Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We shouldn't expect people who are agitated about flying to deserve greater scrutiny."

Sparapani said he thinks the SPOT program is "code for racial or ethic profiling."

Brown, the man arrested in Orlando, is a Jamaican national with dark skin and a full beard and mustache.

"We actually feel it's an antidote to racial profiling," TSA analyst Carl Maccario said of the program.

"Racial profiling is ineffective. If you're going to racially profile, the real terrorist is going to walk right by you."

Federal officials are so pleased with the SPOT program that they have outlined aggressive expansion plans.

By September, the TSA hopes to have 2,400 behavior-detection officers deployed at 160 airports across the country.

The number of special screeners could grow to 4,000 by mid-2009.

Here in Columbus, Boldt said, she has no doubt that her trained eyes can help spot the face of terrorism.

"I believe in this program."

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