A federal program at select U.S. airports using trained security officers to identify terrorists and other lawbreakers by studying passenger behavior arrived at BWI yesterday, sources familiar with the program said.
Transportation Security Administration officials have been working on a national behavior profiling program for about two years, employing officers to watch passengers' mannerisms, facial expressions and other characteristics in an effort to spotlight potential problems. TSA officials wouldn't confirm the move to Baltimore, saying only that the program is being used at about a dozen U.S. airports, including Boston and Washington Dulles.
Agency spokesman Darrin Kayser said that the program is a critical layer in aviation security and that the officers will take care to apply the program fairly. Officers will not target any races or ethnicities, he said.
But critics have begun questioning the level of officer training for the program - four days in the classroom - and the potential for civil rights abuses.
Passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport said that while comforted by the added security, they also had concerns.
"That's crazy," said Marcus Williams, a 27-year-old baggage handler for Southwest Airlines who was on his way home to Orlando. "How do they know you're not upset because of a family problem" or just afraid to fly?
Kayser said the officers are being culled from the agency's 43,000 screeners put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks. Their numbers are growing as they are assigned to airports and working as mobile teams able to go where there is an urgent need. The program is officially called SPOT, or Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, and Kayser said screeners shouldn't be readily noticeable to passengers unless someone is pulled aside for questioning or turned over to local law enforcement for violations.
"We have looked at it at a few airports, and we've seen how it works and find it is very effective in recognizing individuals who could potentially cause harm," Kayser said.
Neither Kayser nor a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, responsible for law enforcement at state airports, would confirm the move to BWI. Kayser said they need to "maintain the element of unpredictability." The sources who confirmed the program's debut here would not provide further details.
Security experts and the airport say that BWI has been a testing ground in the past for TSA given its proximity to Washington. It was among the first airports to get machines to screen passengers and baggage for explosives.
But the officers are using more subjective means to scan for trouble. At least one security expert said less than a week was not sufficient to train workers, who could miss clues from would-be terrorists and could unfairly burden some passengers.
Israel, which has long used behavior profiling to catch terrorists, uses professionals who undergo months or more of training, said Stephen Gale, co-chairman of the Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gale said the officers look for behavior specific to terrorists, versus drug smugglers or illegal immigrants. That may include specific movements or it may be people traveling as families who don't act like it, he said.
"If you miss 80 percent of the drug smugglers and catch 20 percent it may not matter all that much," Gale said. "Are you willing to accept that ratio with terrorists?"
He also said so many people travel through U.S. airports a day - about 2 million, according to the TSA - that it might be impossible to screen everyone's behavior.
Officers will be pressured to keep the long lines of passengers moving. And if they insist on stopping too many people, "you're going to end up stuffing the courts with people saying they were discriminated against."
Further, according to another terrorism expert, the federal government has tried profiling before. And it wasn't successful.
Based on a study of 1,100 hijackings since World War II, the most effective countermeasure employed by the federal government has been the metal detector, in place since 1973, said Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a University of Maryland criminology professor.
But most hijackings have not been terrorism-related. Most in the 1970s, the peak period, were aimed at financial gain or sending a political message. Some were perpetrated by psychologically troubled people with no goal, he said.
An extradition treaty signed with Cuba stopped hijackings by people flying to that island because they would be returned to the United States and prosecuted. Profiling by the Federal Aviation Administration didn't deter a significant number of other types of hijackers, he said.