Searching Passengers' Faces For Subtle Cues to Terror

TSA screeners at Dulles Airport and elsewhere increasingly are trained in behavior detection in support of government efforts to fight terrorism.
TSA screeners at Dulles Airport and elsewhere increasingly are trained in behavior detection in support of government efforts to fight terrorism. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Looking for signs of "stress, fear and deception" among the hundreds of passengers shuffling past him at Orlando International Airport one day last month, security screener Edgar Medina immediately focused on four casually dressed men trying to catch a flight to Minneapolis.

One of the men, in particular, was giving obvious signs of trying to hide something, Medina said. After obtaining the passengers' ID cards and boarding passes, the Transportation Security Administration officer quickly determined the men were illegal immigrants traveling with fake Florida driver's licenses. They were detained.

"It wasn't that unusual," Medina said. "We see more and more of that stuff down here. Every day, that is what I'm looking for."

The otherwise mundane arrests Aug. 13 illustrated an increasingly popular tactic in the government's effort to fight terrorism: detecting lawbreakers or potential terrorists by their behavior. The TSA has embraced the strategy, training 600 of its screeners, including Medina, in detection techniques. Such screeners patrol the Washington region's three airports, and by year's end, 1,000 screeners at more than 40 airports will be trained.

The TSA also plans to train screeners in the art of observing slight facial movements that indicate a person is lying.

Although civil libertarians and top Democrats in Congress say the techniques raise serious questions about privacy rights and racial and ethnic profiling, TSA officials say the behavior-detection officers may play a more important role in thwarting terrorist attacks than traditional screening techniques.

The teams have referred more than 40,000 people for extra screening since January 2006. Of those passengers, nearly 300 were arrested on charges including carrying concealed weapons and drug trafficking. TSA officials will not say whether the screeners have helped nab potential terrorists, but they say terrorists and other lawbreakers exhibit the same behavioral clues.

"In this kind of environment, you can't be sure they are going to come to the checkpoint with a prohibited item, per se," said Kip Hawley, the TSA's administrator. "Unless you do something more than that, you are going to miss the next attack. A behavior-detection officer will detect somebody no matter what the weapon is."

The TSA's teams are the most publicly acknowledged effort by the government or the private sector to come up with strategies and technology to detect lawbreakers or terrorists before they commit a crime. Other technologies under development or being deployed include machines that detect stress in voices and software that scans video images to match the faces of passengers with those of known terrorists.

The government is testing other technology that can see through clothing with Superman-like vision or can help determine whether somebody might be carrying an explosives-laden vest by analyzing electromagnetic waves. Some of that technology, including back-scatter X-ray devices, has already been deployed at some airports and in mass-transit terminals.

TSA officials acknowledge that those technologies are years from deployment and may not be as flexible as their behavior-detection officers, whom they can post outside airports, in terminals or train stations, or at checkpoints.

The behavior-detection program works like this: On a recent afternoon, two specially trained officers -- they always work in teams -- stood by a checkpoint at Dulles International Airport while another team of two roamed the terminal. The officers watched for anyone who seemed nervous, out of place or was acting suspiciously.


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