Behavior detection key in thwarting hijackers

Former airport police officer discusses pilot project at Boston airport


Last month, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it was launching an expanded behavior detection pilot program at Boston Logan International Airport.

The pilot program, which is expected to last 60 days, uses behavior detection officers to engage passengers in what is described by the agency as "casual greeting" conversations to look for suspicious behaviors that could warrant additional screening measures.

Todd McGhee, a former lead trainer for the Massachusetts State Police Anti-Terrorism Unit and member of the Boston Logan Airport Homeland Security detail, says that use of behavior screening techniques may be one the nation's best defense against another airline terror attack.

"I really think in a post 9/11 world that we're living in, in order to effective in enhancing our security, we need to take a layered approach," he said. "Our decision makers and policy makers have taken a position of plug-in technology as a way to enhance our security and vet high-risk behavior and I just don't see that being enough."

McGhee, who now serves as managing partner and president of security training firm Protecting the Homeland Innovations, says that frontline airport workers, not just TSA screeners, can also play an important role in detecting threats. He added that if people want to be serious about airport security that they also need to focus on the airport as a whole and extending training and education beyond TSA screeners who are only at the security checkpoints.

"Our airport employees can all have a role in security. I don't think it's just TSA's job," he said. "And, one thing that gets overlooked is the airport police officer. TSA does not have powers of arrest, they do not have powers of detainment, they are certainly securing the checkpoints which is their mandate, but we need to get everybody involved with recognizing suspicious behavior, reporting suspicious behavior and then, and only then are we going to be able to identify people that are hiding in plain sight."

According to McGhee, travelers passing through Boston Logan airport can expect questions that were asked even prior to 9/11 such as did you pack your own bags? Have your bags been in your sight the entire time? What's your purpose at Logan today? Officers will be looking for passengers that try to evade the questions or seem like they might be searching for answers.

"These are basic questions that the passenger should be familiar with and if they're having trouble answering basic, ordinary questions, then that's going to set off flags for that TSA screener," he explained.

McGhee is also critical of the Department of Homeland Security's "See Something, Say Something" initiative, which encourages the traveling public to report suspicious people or objects. Despite the agency substantial investment in the campaign, he believes it's ineffective because most people simply don't know what to look for.

"What's the difference between an unattended bag and a suspicious bag? DHS has not gone into in-depth understanding as to what frontline employees or even passengers should be looking for," McGhee said. "I think there is a real gap that needs to be bridged and the only way to do that is through training and education. We doing a lot of training right now in mass transit and an overwhelming from response from both those bus and rail operators is about the general ridership. They are saying that riders are contributing to the white noise because of their own inattentiveness about their own personal belonging. Now when an employee does make a call about a perceived suspicious package, we're deploying resources to low-level situations. The education of the general public needs to be put in place maybe through a website or webinars, but I think DHS could definitely fill in some of the gaps as to what we're looking for. "