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Fliers face new queries at Logan

Trial program is first in country

By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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The Transportation Security Administration plans to start testing an expanded behavior-detection security program today at Logan International Airport, the first airport in the nation to roll out the enhanced screening method.

Under the program, TSA officers will speak with every passenger passing through the Terminal A security checkpoint, asking each two or three questions, such as “Where are you traveling today?’’ or “How long have you been in town?’’ Officials said the intent is to detect suspicious behavior - such as someone sweating profusely or avoiding eye contact - a process the TSA estimates will take about 20 seconds per passenger.

“We’re not looking for the answers necessarily; we’re instead gauging the reaction, the response to the question,’’ said George Naccara, TSA federal security director at Logan.

If a person is deemed to be a possible threat, he or she will be pulled aside for additional screening, such as a pat-down or a bag search, and in some cases the Massachusetts State Police will be alerted. Questioning will take place at a separate podium after a traveler’s documents have been checked, and those identified for more screening will be sent to a third station.

“We don’t expect to have any disruption in service,’’ said Todd Smith, director of aviation operations for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Logan is also changing its security routine on a separate front: It is one of six airports trying out a new security policy for children 12 and under that allows them to keep their shoes on and avoid going through full-body scanners, which show a slightly blurred image of the passenger’s naked body. The program is being tested for two weeks in Terminal C, home to JetBlue Airways and United Airlines.

“We’ve identified that children 12 and under present a very low risk,’’ Naccara said.

Both programs are part of a new risk-based approach to security aimed at minimizing passengers’ inconvenience, officials said.

In 2003, Logan became the first US airport to use behavior detection, modeling its system after those used at airports around the world. That program, called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, is used at 160 airports nationwide to identify and question passengers who are deemed to be suspicious. That can include anything from wearing a winter coat buttoned up in the middle of the summer to providing evasive answers to basic questions.

The new 60-day trial program at Logan differs in that all travelers will face questioning, no matter what their attire or behavior.

SPOT has resulted in 2,000 arrests since it began nationwide in 2004, according to the TSA, but Naccara could not say how many were terrorist-related.

“We’ve identified people who have outstanding warrants,’’ he said. “We’ve identified people who’ve been doing surveillance in an airport. We’ve identified people who have been doing testing of our equipment in an airport.’’

Just last week at Logan, officials said, a TSA officer pulled aside a man who seemed suspicious and found in his carry-on bag a wallet that he had stolen from a college student in Boston.

But the program’s validity has been questioned by some, including the Government Accountability Office. In a July 13 report, the agency reiterated what it said more than a year earlier: that the TSA decided to implement the behavior-detection program before determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for such tactics. The GAO said it is not known whether the program, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually, has led to the arrest of a would-be terrorist.

Others question whether the program makes it more likely that passengers’ rights will be violated based on their appearance or their inability to respond to TSA employees’ questions in a particular way.

“The notion that TSA screeners will have the scientific training and nuance to make determinations as millions and millions of passengers go through airports is nothing more than security theater,’’ said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It has yet to catch a single terrorist in seven years and does threaten to both be a hassle for every traveler and opens the door to more racial profiling.’’

About 80 Logan TSA officers are going through training for the beefed-up behavior-detection program, and on-the-job training begins today at Terminal A, home of Delta Air Lines. The test program officially begins in mid-August, after which the TSA will determine whether to expand it to other airports.

The new Logan procedures are similar to behavioral analysis techniques that have long been used at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, where every passenger is interviewed before being allowed to board an airplane.

But TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said the US version is less intrusive because federal authorities here must adhere to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. TSA officers also handle more passengers than Israeli officials do, so there is less time to spend questioning them, Davis said.

Logan’s security system came under scrutiny after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked two planes that took off from Logan and slammed them into the World Trade Center. Ever since, officials at Massport - which operates the airport - have pushed for security advances here.

Behavioral techniques are effective in identifying potential threats because it is nearly impossible to suppress the stress caused by lying, said Lillian Glass, an expert in nonverbal communications who is writing a book with an FBI agent called “See Something, Say Something: Spotting the Body Language of Terrorists.’’

“The body doesn’t lie,’’ Glass said, adding that people trying to hide something may take short breaths, pulse their jaw muscles, and speak in a staccato style. “The emotions which cause physical actions are deep in your brain and can’t be controlled.’’

Sally Taylor, 63, a self-professed “nervous Nellie’’ flier on her way home to Bradenton, Fla., from Boston yesterday, said she would not object to being questioned in the security line. But Taylor said she does not like the full-body scanner.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.


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