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At BWI, a new eye for threats

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

"But it appears hijackers are evolving," he said. "Most of the hijackings studied were before people were willing to take their own lives. They've raised the ante."

That means the TSA probably needs to try behavior profiling again, LaFree and Gale said.

It's not clear how effective the program has been where it's in place. A spokeswoman at Washington Dulles International Airport referred questions to the TSA. At Boston Logan International Airport, officials say it has been effective in catching criminals but wouldn't provide numbers of arrests.

Before the TSA, Massachusetts state police hired an expert from Israel to help them launch a behavior profiling program there. That effort was launched after Sept. 11.

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"Have we caught a terrorist? No," said Phil Orlandella, an airport spokesman. "But we've found people with outstanding warrants and other issues."

Orlandella, who has gone through the state training, considers it fair. He said there is always going to be opposition to and critics of law enforcement efforts. But he said the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the program, has no plans to curtail it - even though it faces a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to the suit, King Downing, who is the national coordinator of the ACLU's Campaign Against Racial Profiling and is black, was stopped by state police in the terminal in 2003 after making a phone call.

He was asked to show identification. He refused. The officer followed him outside and threatened him with arrest. After showing ID and his ticket, he was allowed to leave the airport.

The suit says the behavior assessment screening system used by the police "effectively condones and encourages racial and ethic profiling."

Officials with the ACLU could not be reached yesterday.

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Some passengers at BWI yesterday said they were concerned that profiling could do nothing more than snag people who were afraid of flying.

"That's sort of over the top. Some people could be nervous about flying and fidgety," said Donna Simmons, a Washington legal assistant who was at BWI yesterday, sending her 15-year-old son on a trip to Alabama to visit his brother.

She doubted that "professional" terrorists would let a thing like facial expression or nerves give them away.

Jose Colon echoed Simmons' sentiment: "I don't see how they could just look people in the face and find terrorists. ... It's an extra hassle that probably is not going to do much good."

Colon, 27, owns a custom wheel shop in York, Pa., and was at BWI on his way to a wedding in Alabama. He had just heard about the latest restrictions about carrying on liquids yesterday from his mother. He categorized all of the precautions, including the behavior analysis, as minor.

"None of that makes me feel safe," said Colon, who was taking the fourth flight of his life yesterday and was less than confident about it. "I hope they don't pull me off the plane for that. I'd be pretty mad if they did."

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At BWI yesterday afternoon, there was little, if any, evidence of the new program. Security lines moved swiftly, officers waved travelers through checkpoints, and it didn't appear as if staff had been bolstered.

One area that had a hint of something extra was at a security gate in the Southwest terminal. There, four TSA officers in uniform, and one representative in a suit, stood in a row, staring solemnly at the faces of passengers as they lined up to hand over their identification. The uniformed agents whispered questions to the suited man, who confirmed that he was with the TSA. He said he wasn't allowed to discuss the SPOT program or anything else with the news media.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.


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