A Chastened Airport Watches for Suspects

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Massachusetts state trooper Todd McGhee moved through Terminal B at Boston's Logan International Airport last week and locked his gaze on a scruffy young man with no suitcase leaning against a window. As the powerfully built 6-ft. 3-in. officer approached, wearing his Sig Sauer handgun and a peaked hat, the man began to move in the other direction. "Are you flying today, sir?" said McGhee. It took him less than a minute of questioning to confirm that this was just a kid waiting to pick up a family friend.

Logan, from which half the 9/11 hijackers staged their attack, may now be the most secure airport in the nation, and it wants to be a model of what other airports may become. It was the first major airport to screen all bags for explosives last January with full-scale bomb-detection machines. It formed the nation's first airport-based Anti-Terrorism Unit of troopers who prowl the concourses toting submachine guns. It has set up a perimeter stretching 250 ft. into Boston Harbor that puts the airport off limits to boaters. And state troopers conduct random vehicle searches along its access roads. Later this month Logan will become the only U.S. airport to install shatterproof film on all terminal windows.


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The most significant step the airport has taken, though, is its aggressive profiling program: cops and other trained airport workers try to determine the intent of certain passengers — rather than just the content of their carry-ons. These hundreds of professional watchdogs have been trained over the past six months to recognize suspicious behavior by discreetly observing body language and movement and by listening to people talk. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) proposed a system last week that relies almost entirely on computers to do the profiling by gathering a passenger's commercial and personal data and travel history. Logan's experts, however, say face-to-face contact with suspicious people "is crucial," in the words of Major Tom Robbins, head of Logan's state troopers and director of aviation security.

Logan authorities are quick to stress that the profiling is based not on race but on people's actions, such as lingering a little too long near a security door. But young to middle-age men draw more interest than grandmothers. And if a passport shows travel to certain Middle Eastern countries, the passenger holding it will trigger a more intensive interview.

The reason Logan decided to reinvent its security is not just that it had to live down its role as a jumping-off point for the 9/11 hijackers. It was also the place where the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, landed on Dec. 22. Aviation director Thomas Kinton, a 27-year veteran at Logan, remembers the phone call he got alerting him to the explosives that were found in Reid's shoes: "We knew from that moment on that we weren't waiting for anyone to make Logan secure." Within hours, Kinton and Major Robbins ordered the screeners — who were still airline contractors — to start checking passengers' shoes.

Today Logan's state-of-the-art security system is barely detectable to the average traveler, even in a week like the last one. The airport was on edge after the Department of Homeland Security warned that al-Qaeda was planning hijackings this summer. Discreet security cameras monitor those entering the airport. And airport workers, some of them armed, have been trained to watch people unobtrusively. The most important work takes place in what is called the dirty, or unsecured, area before the metal detectors. "That's where the risk is, and that's where we try to identify a threat," says trooper Robert Bannister.

All this security comes at a price. Logan has spent nearly $250 million on improvements, $117 million of which will be covered by the TSA. The airlines, of course, fear that the airport will eventually pass along the costs, which could mean higher ticket prices or fewer flight choices. But those concerns don't intrude on McGhee, who volunteered for duty at Logan. "I'm looking for everybody from Tim McVeigh to Osama bin Laden," says McGhee, "and anyone in between who wants to do us harm."