Wednesday, August 3, 2011
TSA to Debut ‘Israeli-Style’ Airport Screening
Boston’s TSA screeners — part of a security force whose competency has come under fire nationwide — soon will be carrying out sophisticated behavioral inspections under a first-in-the-nation program that’s already raising concerns of racial profiling, harassment of innocent travelers and longer lines.
The training for the Israeli-style screening — a projected $1 billion national program dubbed Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques — kicks off today at Logan International Airport and will be put to use in Terminal A on Aug. 15. It requires screeners to make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.
But security experts wonder whether Transportation Safety Administration agents are up to the challenge after an embarrassing string of blunders — including patting down a 95-year-old grandmother in Florida and making her remove her adult diaper and frisking a 3-year-old girl who screamed “stop touching me” at a checkpoint in Tennessee.
“I’m not convinced that the TSA has good enough people to make the Israeli approach work on a large scale,” said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who has followed the TSA at his blog, Instapundit.com.
But he noted, “Almost anything would be an improvement over the clown show we’ve got now.”
A leading proponent of Israel’s detection techniques agreed the TSA will be severely tested.
“The question is obviously, what is the quality of the verbal interaction that is going to be implemented?” asked Rafi Ron, a former Logan consultant and CEO of New-Age Security Solutions. “If it will have a poor quality, then obviously it will be another way to waste taxpayer money and increase the hassle to passengers. If not, then this will be great.”
Civil libertarians argue the screening is TSA showmanship — coming just weeks before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and could quickly devolve into profiling.
“It’s an ineffective waste of taxpayer dollars that has the potential and the reality of leading to profiling based on race and ethnicity,” said Massachusetts ACLU executive director Carol Rose, who dismissed SPOT as “security theater.”
Logan’s TSA Federal Security Director George Naccara said he doesn’t expect to see longer lines, just better security in the long run. “I’m trying to refocus the screening effort,” he said. “We have finite resources, so we have to figure out a way to use them more efficiently.”
Under the SPOT program, as passengers hand over their boarding passes and identification, specially trained agents will ask three to four questions — from “Where have you been?” to “Do you have a business card?” and “Where are you traveling?” — while looking for “micro expressions,” such as lack of eye contact, that might hint at nefarious intent.
Suspicious individuals will be pulled aside for more questioning, full-body scans and pat-downs. If the encounter escalates, agents will call in state police.
At Logan, about 70 agents — all with college degrees — are undergoing training by an international consulting firm that includes a four-day classroom course and 24 hours of on-the-job experience, said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.
Logan passenger Lina Texeira, 41, of Clearwater, Fla., a nurse who has done psychiatric training, said yesterday she backs the SPOT program — to a point.
“You’re telling me someone with a three-week training course is going to be able to do that?” she said. “It’s not against the TSA. I just don’t think the training they’re getting is enough.”