TSA screening more than just carry-on bags
'Behavior detection' officers covertly watch travelers' conduct
By Ken Kaye
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- You might not see them, but they're studying you.
To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.
They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
"We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors," she said.
Under the program, which started in Boston in 2003, a suspicious passenger might be given a secondary security screening or referred to police; detection officers do not have arrest powers.
Last year, officers nationwide required 98,805 passengers to undergo additional screenings. Police questioned 9,854 of them and arrested 813.
The TSA does not break down the numbers by individual airport, but each week the officers perform secondary screenings on dozens of travelers in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
In one case, in March 2008, detection officers noticed a passenger about to board a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte, N.C. During a secondary screening, officers found 209 grams of the drug ecstasy, with a street value of $2.5 million, in a carry-on bag. The traveler was arrested.
In other instances, passengers have been arrested on charges of drug trafficking, possessing fraudulent documents and having outstanding warrants, Koshetz said.
In February 2008, detection officers at Miami International Airport noted that a passenger had suspicious documents and was acting oddly. When he was flagged for a secondary screening, he bolted.
Local police and TSA officers chased the man, who ran out of the terminal and jumped off a second-story road onto a sidewalk. He broke an arm and was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and possessing several identification documents.
It's not easy to spot detection officers. Working in teams of two and clad in TSA uniforms, they blend in with those performing screening chores at the security checkpoint.
These jobs do not require a background in behavior analysis, but are chosen based on their intelligence, maturity and ability to work with people, the TSA said.
Officers undergo four days of behavior training, which includes training to spot suicide terrorists, and then receive 24 hours of on-the-job preparation.
Koshetz said the TSA has established specific criteria for what is considered normal behavior "in an airport environment." She said officers react only if a passenger strays from those guidelines, which the TSA declines to reveal for security purposes.
The observation of passengers does not end at the airport.
On an undisclosed number of domestic and international flights, federal air marshals pick up where the behavior detection officers leave off.
The marshals blend in with passengers and work covertly to spot suspicious behavior, said Nelson Minerly, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, which also falls under the TSA.
"If the public can't find us, the bad guys can't find us, either," said Minerly, an air marshal since 2002.
The exact number of working air marshals is secret. Minerly noted that they are federal law enforcement officers authorized to arrest and to use lethal force.
In December 2005, air marshals fatally shot Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, of Maitland, Fla., after he boarded an American Airlines flight from Miami to Orlando. Alpizar had said he had a bomb in his backpack and later made a threatening move, prompting the marshals to fire. Alpizar did not have a bomb and his wife said he had bipolar disorder.
Alex Archer, of Sunrise, Fla., a businessman who was flying to Chicago, said he had no objection to being secretly watched.
"Honestly, I haven't even noticed them," he said. "They must be doing a good job. It's better to have more security than not enough."