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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)

The TSA won't publicly disclose what behavior screeners are looking for. However, screeners, former screeners and consultants say the officers are looking for people traveling without bags, sweating and constantly checking out every person passing by, especially those with badges and guns. People who avoid eye contact or veer away when police approach also draw their attention.

When deciding whether to target a passenger, TSA screeners generally do not rely on one trait but a combination of behaviors.

On the recent afternoon, the two roaming officers were keeping an eye on a passenger who had gone through and then exited security. The man was sitting on a concrete barrier at the passenger drop-off area. He didn't have bags, smoked a cigarette, seemed to be talking to himself and kept standing up and sitting down. Eventually, when he returned through the checkpoint, officers pulled him aside and questioned him. They said they found nothing suspicious and let him go.

To become a behavior-detection officer, screeners undergo four days of classroom training and three days of supervised on-the-job work.

A new tool in their arsenal is the ability to determine when the slightest facial movement is masking a lie. All of the TSA's behavior-detection officers and the agency's 1,000 inspectors, who also work at airports, will be trained in the technique.

David Matsumoto, research director for the Ekman Group, which conducts the TSA "micro-facial expression" training, said that micro-expressions are signs of concealed emotions and "are indications that the travelers have an emotional state that they don't want anyone else to know about."

The expressions often last less than 1/15 of a second, he said.

"When you're not trained to see them, when you blink, you'll miss them," Matsumoto said. "Even if you don't blink, they're so fast people don't realize what is happening."

The TSA's growing reliance on detecting behavior and the close study of passengers' expressions concerns civil liberties groups and members of Congress.

"The problem is behavioral characteristics will be found where you look for them," said John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is suing the Massachusetts State Police over an incident in which an officer trained in behavior detection detained a passenger at the airport in 2003.

"The fact remains that Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent are perceived to be of particular threat," he said. "So it is highly likely that those are the people whose behaviors will be more highly scrutinized. There is still the danger that [the technique] will be used in a racially discriminatory manner."

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the program's aggressive expansion caused him concern. He plans to hold hearings on the issue in the next few months, he said.

"We have to be careful in using this so we don't single out people who look different than us," Thompson said. "When we get into something that is approaching behavior, we have to be very careful that we don't stereotype people because of their dress or their race. And we have to understand and protect the civil liberties and civil rights of people in this country."

TSA officials say they have received no complaints from passengers about profiling or privacy violations connected to the behavior-detection effort.

"We spend a substantial portion of our training going over why everyone knows racial profiling is illegal," said Carl Maccario, a TSA program analyst who coordinates the detection effort. "As a security tool, it is also ineffective. If you are racially profiling, the real terrorist is going to slip past you. This is actually an antidote to racial profiling, because officers have to articulate exactly what made them suspicious."

Staff writer Rachel Dry contributed to this report.

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