A New Tack for Airport Screening: Behave Yourself

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A Transportation Security Administration agent performs a pat-down check on an airline passenger at a security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

In the four years since it was created, the Transportation Security Administration has been trying — and often failing — to find dangerous things that passengers might bring onto an aircraft. Now the TSA is aiming to become less obsessed with scissors and cigarette lighters and focusing more on passenger behavior. Government sources tell TIME that the agency will announce in the next few weeks that it will introduce a race-neutral profiling program at the country's busiest airports, among them New York's John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles International and Chicago's O'Hare. The program has an awkward title, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, but a clever acronym, SPOT. It has been tested over the last three years at several airports in the Northeast, including Boston's Logan Airport, where two of the 9/11 hijacking teams launched their operations.

Unlike the TSA's troubled and controversial use of computer databases to scan for individuals whose names occur on passenger "watch lists," SPOT is based on observing passenger behavior. George Naccara, the TSA's Federal Security Director who has been overseeing the SPOT program in Boston, is a big booster. "This system is conducted by trained personnel and closely monitored by supervisors," he says. "It provides another significant layer of security."

Here's how it works: Select TSA employees will be trained to identify suspicious individuals who raise red flags by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior, which can be as simple as changes in mannerisms, excessive sweating on a cool day, or changes in the pitch of a person's voice. Racial or ethnic factors are not a criterion for singling out people, TSA officials say. Those who are identified as suspicious will be examined more thoroughly; for some, the agency will bring in local police to conduct face-to-face interviews and perhaps run the person's name against national criminal databases and determine whether any threat exists. If such inquiries turn up other issues countries with terrorist connections, police officers can pursue the questioning or alert Federal counterterrorism agents. And of course the full retinue of baggage x-rays, magnetometers and other checks for weapons will continue.

So far, the results for SPOT have been encouraging. According to Naccara, the SPOT program has resulted in the arrest of more than 50 people for having fake IDs, entering the country illegally or drug possession. It also has caught one of its own: several months ago a representative from the Department of Homeland Security tested the system by trying to get a fake weapon through the screening checkpoint; he was successfully stopped by a STOP screener. The TSA will also consider deploying SPOT teams to other transportation systems like train and bus stations.

The SPOT program comes none too soon, since the current TSA system of screening for threats on airplanes has been, well, spotty. Earlier this month TSA screeners not trained in the SPOT program pulled over three Marines in dress uniform for special screening. After being patted down and scrutinized closely, the Marines were finally let go and allowed to continue their duties — escorting the body of one of their colleagues killed in Iraq.