Tucson Citizen: As Ingrid Esser hands a Transportation Security Administration officer her identification and boarding pass for a flight from Logan International Airport to Washington, D.C., she faces a flurry of questions.
Where is she going? Why? How long is she staying?
“It was a new experience,” says Esser, 31, who works in public relations. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I understand their job, and it’s keeping America safe.”
In that exchange, Esser became part of an experiment that, if successful, could change how every passenger who seeks to board a commercial flight in the USA is screened: Besides going through a metal detector, and possibly a full-body scanning machine and pat-down, they’d first undergo a “chat-down,” or face-to-face questioning by a TSA officer. The tactic is similar to what air travelers in Israel face under a program aimed at averting terrorism in the skies.
Chat-downs, a play on the word “pat-down,” describing the physical screening that has angered some passengers as too intrusive, are part of the U.S. government’s effort to adopt a broader strategy of sifting out people who might pose a greater security risk among the roughly 1.2 million people who fly each day.
“It means moving further away from what may have seemed like a one-size-fits-all approach to security,” TSA Administrator John Pistole says.
Chat-downs already are controversial in their trial stage. Civil-liberties advocates and some critics of the TSA see them as another government invasion of fliers’ privacy, a hassle for mostly law-abiding passengers or ineffectual.
“They’re asking questions that people have a right not to answer,” says Mike German, senior policy counsel at the ACLU. “It’s nobody’s business — and certainly not the government’s business — where you’re traveling and why.”
So far, only 48 travelers out of about 132,000 who have been questioned here at Logan have refused to answer the questions, and instead their carry-on bags were physically searched.
“If they refuse to answer, we (still) let them catch their flight,” says Ed Freni, Logan’s aviation director.
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., says he sees chat-downs as another example of the TSA wasting time and money on “largely law-abiding citizens, for the most part.”
‘New situation for bad guys’
Chat-downs, which began at Logan in August, feature blue-shirted TSA officers for a few hours each day asking every passenger in Terminal A a series of questions.
TSA officers pose the questions when they check travelers’ IDs and boarding passes. The choice of location has changed slightly, after first trying the questioning while travelers were in line before the ID check, or after the ID check and before the metal detectors.
Travelers say the questions typically focus on where they are headed, for how long and the purpose of the trip. More probing questions include whether carry-on bags have liquids or why the traveler is holding so much cash.
The answers aren’t all officers are after. They’re looking for behavioral clues to possible deception, and hostility that warrants further scrutiny or a referral to law-enforcement officials. Authorities won’t describe the physical clues, but research has focused on liars averting their eyes, having an inconsistent head gesture or wringing their hands.
“By adding this level of security, we create a new situation for the bad guys that is much more difficult to overcome,” says Rafi Ron, a former director of security at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, who was hired to help beef up Logan’s security.
Suspicious travelers can be diverted for further questioning, but only 10 people have been referred to authorities for alleged crimes such as drug possession — not as terrorist suspects.
Despite the low numbers, George Naccara, TSA’s federal security director for Logan, says the experiment is a good move by the agency to help narrow their search for potential threats. He says people found carrying fraudulent documents or large amounts of cash could represent terrorists testing airport security.
“We’re looking at moving away from such heavy reliance on technology, and now we’re looking at the human interaction,” Naccara says. “That is a very powerful tool.”
Some fliers found chat-downs less obtrusive than the prospect of physical searches they had to undergo on the other side of the metal detectors.
“They do it in Europe, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t do it here,” David Jones, a 73-year-old retiree from Shapleigh, Maine, who was heading to Spokane, Wash., says of questions about where he was headed and whether he was traveling alone.
Rich Szulewski, 40, says the questions about where he was from and what he had done during his recent trip reminded him of those he faced growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., when he crossed the Peace Bridge from Canada.
“You’re a captive audience, no pun intended,” says Szulewski, of Germantown, Tenn., who flies more than 100,000 miles a year peddling contracts for an orthopedics manufacturer to hospitals. “It clearly wasn’t just small talk.”
Others are offended. “It’s a waste of everybody’s time,” says Allen Crockett, 49, of Clayton, N.C., who travels 150,000 miles a year as vice president of sales for a wireless company.
The questions, he says, interrupted calls and texts he sends while waiting in line. Crockett is eager for development of a pre-screening program that would let him whisk around the long lines — and avoid last-minute questions.
“As a frequent flier, I’m going to take that lost privacy on the chin,” Crockett says. “I want to get there five minutes before my flight and get on my plane and go.”
TSA is experimenting with a pre-screening program akin to what Crockett says he’d like to see. That program, announced Oct. 4, is designed to expedite the security process for travelers who provide extra background information about themselves in advance. It is for frequent fliers on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines at airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas and Miami.
Does it stop terrorism?
TSA expects to continue tweaking the chat-downs through November. If deemed successful, they could be expanded to other airports. But the value of the questioning is a matter of dispute.
Chat-downs are an extension of a program called SPOT, for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It now fields 3,000 officers at 161 airports at an annual cost of $212 million.
From May 2004 to August 2008, 2 billion people boarded aircraft at SPOT airports and 152,000 were referred for secondary questioning, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in May 2010. About 14,000 passengers were referred to law enforcement officers and 1,100 were arrested during that period.
Rather than charging anyone with terrorism, the SPOT detentions included 427 arrests of undocumented immigrants, 209 for outstanding warrants, 166 for fraudulent documents and 125 for drug possession.
Meanwhile, GAO checked 16 people who had been charged in six terrorist plots during that period and found they had passed unhindered at least 23 times through eight airports where SPOT officers worked.
“Although outstanding warrants and the possession of fraudulent or suspect documents could be associated with a terrorist threat, TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to the aviation system in any of these cases,” the report said.
German of the ACLU says the program seems ripe for abuse because many people are nervous at the airport, many won’t look others in the eye, and some seem arrogant.
“They seem to be doubling-down on a program that has proven ineffective,” he says.
TSA and its consultants stand behind the program’s value in detecting criminal behavior, if not yet terrorists.
“You’ve got to realize you’re looking for needles in a haystack,” says Paul Ekman, a psychology professor emeritus at University of California-San Francisco, who helped develop the SPOT program. “They don’t appear very often. It’s going to take you a long time to know whether a program is being successful.”
Ekman says people’s noses don’t grow if they’re lying. However, he says, they give off clues beyond facial expressions when they’re lying or have hostile intentions. Physical tics from head to toe can emerge, he says.
“Concealment looks like concealment,” says Ekman, a consultant on the Fox TV show Lie to Me.
Is it profiling?
The TSA says it isn’t profiling passengers, but simply questioning everyone in line for several hours each day.
That’s in contrast to Israel’s system of questioning passengers, in which Ron says Israeli security collects much more information before a traveler arrives at the airport to determine how much scrutiny a person should receive at the airport.
Israeli profiling explicitly labels a 25-year-old Palestinian from Gaza as a higher risk aboard a plane than an elderly Holocaust survivor, Ron says. He acknowledges that system wouldn’t work in the United States because of laws against racial and religious discrimination.
“They come in all colors, shapes and ethnic backgrounds,” Ron says of terrorists. He points to threats from John Walker Lindh, an American convicted of fighting for the Taliban; Jose Padilla, a Hispanic U.S. citizen convicted of aiding terrorists; and attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, a British citizen of Jamaican descent.
“I think personally in the United States it would be a grave mistake to use racial profiling,” he says.
Rep. Broun, whose subcommittee monitors the TSA, says that as a doctor he’s skeptical the agency can train workers to spot terrorists.
Naccara, TSA’s security chief at Logan, says chat-down officers get extra training after being chosen from among the 70 behavior-detection officers who each have several years of experience. “Those are the people getting the additional training, so they are not people off the street,” Naccara says.
Passengers haven’t been slowed by the extra layer of security so far. Lines backed up 20 minutes one day during initial testing because of a lack of staffing. Freni, Logan’s aviation director, says the problem was corrected the next day.
The vast number of exchanges are brief, with questions lasting about 40 seconds. “We’re not pushing people through,” Freni says, “but we can make an adjustment.”
Back in the security line at Logan, banker Russell Chong, 40, shrugs off the added security step as he heads to a flight home to New York City.
“No problem,” he says with a wink, “as long as it doesn’t slow things down.”