New TSA tactic: Questioning fliers
Experimental approach raises privacy issues
by Bart Jansen - Oct. 14, 2011 12:00 AM
BOSTON - As Ingrid Esser hands a Transportation Security Administration agent her identification and boarding pass for a flight from Logan International Airport to Washington, D.C., she faces a flurry of questions.
Where is she going? Why? How long is she staying?
"It was a new experience," says Esser, 31, who works in public relations. "It doesn't bother me at all. I understand their job, and it's keeping America safe."
In that exchange, Esser became part of an experiment that, if successful, could change how every passenger who seeks to board a commercial airline flight in the U.S. is screened: Besides going through a metal detector, and possibly a full-body scanning machine and pat-down, they'd first undergo a "chat-down," or face-to-face questioning by a TSA agent. The tactic is similar to what air travelers in Israel face under a program aimed at averting terrorism in the skies.
Chat-downs - a play on the word "pat-down," describing the physical screening that has angered some passengers as too intrusive - are part of the U.S. government's effort to adopt a broader strategy of sifting out people who might pose a greater security risk among the roughly 1.2 million people who fly each day.
"It means moving further away from what may have seemed like a one-size-fits-all approach to security," TSA chief John Pistole says.
Chat-downs already are controversial in their trial stage. Civil-liberties advocates and some critics of the TSA see them as another government invasion of travelers' privacy, a hassle for mostly law-abiding passengers, or just ineffectual.
"They're asking questions that people have a right not to answer," says Mike German, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's nobody's business - and certainly not the government's business - where you're traveling and why."
So far, only 48 travelers out of about 132,000 who have been questioned at Logan have refused to answer the questions, and instead, their carry-on bags were physically searched.
"If they refuse to answer, we (still) let them catch their flight," says Ed Freni, Logan's aviation director.
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., says he sees chat-downs as another example of the TSA wasting time and money on "largely law-abiding citizens, for the most part."
Chat-downs, which began at Logan in August, feature blue-shirted TSA agents asking every passenger in Terminal A a series of questions.
TSA agents pose the questions when they check travelers' IDs and boarding passes.
Travelers say the questions typically focus on where they are headed, for how long and the purpose of the trip. More probing questions include whether carry-on bags have liquids or why the traveler is holding so much cash.
The answers aren't all that agents are after. They're looking for behavioral clues to possible deception and hostility that warrants further scrutiny or a referral to law-enforcement officials.
"By adding this level of security, we create a new situation for the bad guys that is much more difficult to overcome," says Rafi Ron, a former director of security at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, who was hired to help beef up Logan's security.
Suspicious travelers can be diverted for further questioning, but only 10 people have been referred to authorities on suspicion of crimes such as drug possession - not as terror suspects. [ So the chat downs are catching common criminals, not terrorists! ]
Despite the low numbers, George Naccara, TSA's federal security director for Logan, says the experiment is a good move by the agency to help narrow their search for potential threats. He says people found carrying fraudulent documents or large amounts of cash could represent terrorists testing airport security.
"We're looking at moving away from such heavy reliance on technology, and now we're looking at the human interaction," Naccara says. "That is a very powerful tool."
Some passengers found the chat-downs less obtrusive than the prospect of physical searches they still had to undergo on the other side of the metal detectors.
"They do it in Europe, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't do it here," David Jones, a 73-year-old from Shapleigh, Maine, who was heading to Spokane, Wash., says of questions about where he was going and whether he was traveling alone.
Others are offended. "It's a waste of everybody's time," says Allen Crockett, 49, of Clayton, N.C., who travels 150,000 miles a year as vice president of sales for a wireless company.
Crockett is eager for development of a pre-screening program that would let him whisk around the long lines - and avoid last-minute questions.
The TSA is experimenting with a pre-screening program akin to what Crockett says he'd like to see. That program, announced Oct. 4, is designed to expedite the security process for travelers who provide extra background information about themselves in advance.
The TSA expects to continue tweaking the chat-downs at Logan through November. If deemed successful, they could be expanded to other airports. But the value of the questioning is a matter of dispute.
Chat-downs are an extension of a program called SPOT, or Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It now fields 3,000 officers at 161 airports at an annual cost of $212 million.
From May 2004 to August 2008, 2 billion people boarded aircraft at SPOT airports and 152,000 were referred for secondary questioning, according to a Government Accountability Office report in May 2010. About 14,000 passengers were referred to law-enforcement officers and 1,100 were arrested during that period.
Rather than charging anyone with terrorism, the SPOT detentions included 427 arrests of undocumented immigrants, 209 in connection with outstanding warrants, 166 on fraudulent documents and 125 on drug possession.
Meanwhile, the GAO checked 16 people who had been charged in six terrorist plots during that period and found they had passed unhindered at least 23 times through eight airports where SPOT officers worked.