At Rhode Island Airport, Watching Behavior to Detect Terrorists

Rhode Island airport is among first airports to test 'behavior detection techniques'

The SPOT criteria allow for "certain baseline behaviors" and tend to screen out "people who are nervous about flying," he said. "There are other behaviors that we're looking for."

He rejected any concern that officers might home-in on passengers for subjective, even unconscious reasons, and be more likely to perceive a high score on the SPOT criteria depending on the passenger's race or ethnicity.

"We've got a great training program," Salter said, expressing confidence that it teaches officers to watch for terror suspects who might look more like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and not necessarily Mohammed Atta, a leader in the 9/11 attacks.

"We're looking at the behaviors, we're not looking at the person," he said.

TSA trains officers in the threat posed by counter-intelligence efforts, he said, terrorists who are "trying to ping the system" and see which behaviors single out passengers for additional screening.

"These guys are very smart at what they do; they're not stupid. Anybody who sells them short is making a mistake," Salter said.

The program at Green has never turned up a terrorist, or anyone on the government's "no-fly" list, but Salter said it routinely turns up undocumented aliens and passengers who are carrying illegal drugs or have arrest warrants outstanding.

"The behaviors are indicative of something going on with this person, exactly what it is can be sorted out after the police have had contact with them," he said.

If a passenger registers high enough on the anxiety scale, TSA requires additional screening before he or she is allowed to board a plane, Salter said. The transportation security officer who makes the call on a passenger may be working the security checkpoint, or may be a uniformed or plainclothes officer whose only job is to observe.

"On every shift we have people specially assigned" to SPOT, Salter said.

In all cases, a high score on the SPOT criteria means a trip through the bomb-sniffer (the Explosive Trace Portal), a pat-down search, "other security measures" or all of the above.

"We have a full range of screening techniques that we would use," Salter said.

In 2004 and again last year, TSA advertised for firms to propose emerging technologies that may be capable of removing the human factor in sizing up whether a passenger is nervous for extraordinary reasons and should receive extra scrutiny before boarding an aircraft. On the TSA's most recent appeal to the technology sector, Government Computer News reported the agency was interested in "desirable technologies for detecting suspicious behavior."

The technologies should be "useful for tracking travelers or employees in airports, train stations and bus terminals."

TSA said it should be "noninvasive, remote, covert, passive, automatic . . ." and able to detect "physiological response or overt behavior associated with malicious intent."

(Providence Journal, The (RI) (KRT) -- 01/18/06)