Travelers at Sea-Tac and dozens of other major airports across America are being scrutinized by teams of TSA behavior-detection officers specially trained to discern the subtlest suspicious behaviors.
TSA officials will not reveal specific behaviors identified by the program — called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Technique) — that are considered indicators of possible terrorist intent.
But a central task is to recognize microfacial expressions — a flash of feelings that in a fraction of a second reflects emotions such as fear, anger, surprise or contempt, said Carl Maccario, who helped start the program for TSA.
“In the SPOT program, we have a conversation with (passengers) and we ask them about their trip,” said Maccario from his office in Boston. “When someone lies or tries to be deceptive, … there are behavior cues that show it. … A brief flash of fear.”
Such people are referred for secondary screening, which can include a pat-down search and an X-ray exam. The microfacial expressions, he said, are the same across many cultures.
Since January 2006, behavior-detection officers have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening, Maccario said. Of those, about 600 to 700 were arrested on a variety of charges, including possession of drugs, weapons violations and outstanding warrants.
Maccario will not say whether the teams have disrupted any terrorist operations. But he did say that there are active counterterrorism investigations under way that began with referrals from the program.
SPOT began spreading out to airports across the nation two years after initial testing began in 2003 in Boston, Providence, R.I., and Portland, Maine. It’s now at more than 50 airports and continues to grow.
Lynette Blas-Bamba manages Sea-Tac’s 12-officer behavior-detection team. Since the program started here in November 2006, more than 600 people have been referred for secondary inspections, she said. Of those, 11 were arrested.
The officers ask simple questions:
“How are you today?”
“Where are you heading?”
“Is this all your property?”
“It’s almost irrelevant what your answers are,” Maccario said. “It’s more relevant how you respond. Vague, evasive responses — fear shows itself. When you do this long enough, you see it right away.”
Maccario emphasized that the program takes into account the typical stress many of us experience when traveling, especially during the holidays.
Ordinary people who are feeling anxious are “much more open with their body movements and their facial expressions as compared to an operational terrorist (thinking) ‘I’ve got to defeat security,’ ” Maccario said. “We’re looking for behavior indicators that show a certain level of stress, fear or anxiety above and beyond that shown by an anxious member of the traveling public.”
The detection teams look for those indicators to spike when a traveler with something to hide approaches security checkpoints.
Blas-Bamba and her team were trained in fall 2006. She says she did behavioral detection of a sort in her last job as a probation officer. “We all do it to a degree. It’s just a matter of understanding and articulating what we see.”
Part of the training is a cultural awareness component, Maccario said. For example, in some cultures people don’t make eye contact with people in authority.
And to emphasize the sensitivity TSA is bringing to the program, he recalled a meeting with an association for people with Tourette’s disorder to assure them that having a tic will not result in a pat-down.
The TSA considers the program a powerful tool to root out terrorists, but also an antidote to racial profiling.
“We don’t care where you are from,” Maccario said. “It’s no longer subjective. If you are acting a certain way, that’s what is going to attract our attention.
“There is no reliable picture of a terrorist,” he added, citing American terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and “the fact that al-Qaida continues to recruit people that blend into society.”
The program, however, has raised privacy and civil liberties concerns.
“The problem is behavioral characteristics will be found where you look for them,” the American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts legal director John Reinstein told The Washington Post.
But Naseem Tuffaha, political chairman of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Seattle chapter, looks at the program as a potential step away from racial profiling.
“Our message in working with federal and local authorities has been to make behavioral-based decisions rather than ethnic-profiling decisions. Our message is to really focus on suspicious behavior rather than suspicious-looking people,” he said.
But Tuffaha warned that if the TSA “only looked hard when somebody is Middle Eastern-appearing … then you are still conducting racial profiling under a different name.”