Faces, Too, Are Searched at U.S.
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Waverly Cousin, center,
examined passengers’ faces at Dulles International Airport on
Wednesday as part of a behavior-based screening program.
DULLES, Va., Aug. 16 — As the man approached the
airport security checkpoint here on Wednesday, he kept picking up
and putting down his backpack, touching his fingers to his chin,
rubbing some object in his hands and finally reaching for his pack
of cigarettes, even though smoking was not allowed.
“The observation of human behavior is probably the
hardest thing to defeat,” said Waverly Cousin, a
former police officer and checkpoint screener who is
now the supervisor of the behavior detection unit at
Dulles. “You just don’t know what I am going to
Transportation Security Administration officers stood nearby,
nearly motionless and silent, gazing straight at him. Then, with a
nod, they moved in, chatting briefly with the man, and then swiftly
pulled him aside for an intense search.
Another airline passenger had just made the acquaintance of the
transportation agency’s “behavior detection officers.”
Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation
agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do
not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to
find anyone with evil intent. So far, these specially trained
officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide,
including Dulles International Airport here outside Washington, and
they represent just a tiny percentage of the transportation agency’s
43,000 screeners.But after the reported liquid bomb plot in Britain,
agency officials say they want to have hundreds of behavior
detection officers trained by the end of next year and deployed at
most of the nation’s biggest airports.Even in its infancy, the
program has elicited some protests. At one airport, passengers
singled out solely because of their behavior have at times been
threatened with detention if they did not cooperate, raising
constitutional issues that are already being argued in court. Some
civil liberties experts said that the program, if not run properly,
could turn into another version of racial profiling. Other concerns
were raised this week by two of the foremost proponents of the
techniques, a former Israeli security official and a behavioral
psychologist who developed the system of observing involuntarily
muscular reactions to gauge a person’s state of mind.
They said in interviews that the agency’s approach puts too
little emphasis on the follow-up interview and relies on a
behavior-scoring system that is not necessarily applicable to
“It may be the best that can be done now, but it is not nearly
good enough,” said Paul Ekman, a retired psychology professor from
University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in
detecting lies and deceit, and has helped the T.S.A. set up its
program. “We could do much better, and we should because it could
Agency officials said they recognize that the program, which they
call Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, may not
yet be perfect. But they added that they were constantly making
adjustments and that they were convinced that it was a valuable
addition to their security tool chest.
“There are infinite ways to find things to use as a weapon and
infinite ways to hide them,” said the director of the T.S.A., Kip
Hawley, in an interview this week. “But if you can identify the
individual, it is by far the better way to find the threat.”
The American version of the airport behavior observation program
got its start in Boston, said Thomas G. Robbins, former commander of
the Logan International Airport police.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he said, state police
officers there wondered whether a technique they had long used to
try to identify drug couriers at the airport might also work for
terrorists. The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions,
body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators
of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were
aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking
questions like “What did you see in Boston?” followed perhaps by
“Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?”
The questions themselves are not significant, Mr. Robbins said.
It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person
shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.
The Transportation Security Administration, starting last December,
decided to try out the approach at about a dozen airports, including
Logan. At each airport, it used six officers who had once been routine
screeners, had received an extra four days of classroom training in
observation and questioning techniques, and had three days of field
T.S.A. officers do not have law enforcement powers, so if they
observe someone suspicious, they can chat with the person but cannot
conduct a more formal interrogation. That leaves them with the option of
requiring the passenger to go through a more intense checkpoint search,
as they did with the man at Dulles on Wednesday. Or if the suspicion is
serious enough, they call the local police assigned to the airport to
take over the inquiry.
In nine months — a period in which about seven million people have
flown out of Dulles — several hundred people have been referred for
intense screening, and about 50 have been turned over to the police for
follow-up questioning, said John F. Lenihan, the transportation agency’s
security director at Dulles.
Of those, half a dozen have faced charges or other law enforcement
follow-up, he said, because the behavior detection officials succeeded
in picking out people who had a reason to be nervous, generally because
immigration matters, outstanding warrants or forged documents.
“It is an extra layer of security that is on top of what we have,”
Mr. Hawley said of the program.
But Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben-Gurion
International Airport in Tel Aviv, who was a consultant who helped train
the officers at Logan Airport, said that the agency’s system, while a
welcome improvement to airport security, was still flawed. Most
importantly, he said, too few of the passengers pulled aside were more
formally questioned as in the Israeli system, and when questioning was
done, it was handled by local police officers who might not have had the
necessary behavioral analysis skills.
He cited the case of
Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber, who aroused suspicion when
he arrived at Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris, but
was ultimately allowed to board after the police had questioned him.
“If you don’t do the interviews properly, you are missing what is
probably the most important and powerful part of the procedure,” he
Another concern was raised by Mr. Ekman, who developed some of the
facial analysis tools that the T.S.A. screeners were being trained to
use — for example, fear is manifested by eyebrows raised and drawn
together, a raised upper eyelid and lips drawn back toward the ears. He
said the point system that the T.S.A. had set up was based on facial
reactions that occurred in sit-down interviews, not while people were
standing in line at the airport.
“We have no basis other than the seat of our pants to know how many
points should be given to any one thing,” he said.
The technique has already produced at least one lawsuit, filed in
Boston. The state police at Logan Airport there happened to pick out,
based on behavior observations, the national coordinator of the
American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling.
The coordinator, King Downing, who is black, had just left a flight
when he stopped to make a phone call and noticed that a police officer
was listening in, the lawsuit says. When the call ended, the officer
demanded Mr. Downing’s identification, asking again as he approached a
taxi and then telling him he would be “going downtown” unless he
provided it. Mr. Downing was let go after he showed his identification,
but the encounter led to the lawsuit.
“There is a significant prospect this security method is going to be
applied in a discriminatory manner,” said John Reinstein, an A.C.L.U.
lawyer handling Mr. Downing’s case. “It introduces into the screening
system a number of highly subjective elements left to the discretion of
the individual officer.”
T.S.A. officials, who were not involved in the incident with Mr.
Downing, said they recognized that people at airports were often
agitated — they may be late for flights, taking an emergency trip or
simply scared of flying.
They said they were committed to ensuring the program was not
discriminatory and would be monitoring the work of the SPOT teams to
ensure that the officers were acting upon the established indicators and
not any racial or ethnic bias.
But they acknowledged that some entirely innocent parties, like the
man at Dulles on Wednesday, would probably be pulled aside. That
passenger, whom officials would not identify, was allowed to catch his
flight after a thorough search.
“It is like throwing a big fishing net over the side of the boat: You
catch what you catch,” said Carl Maccario, an agency official helping
manage the SPOT teams. “But hopefully within that net is a terrorist.”