Bloomberg News

TSA Expanding ‘Chat-Downs’ Experiment to Detroit Today

October 17, 2011

(Updates with Naccara comments starting in fourth paragraph.)

Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Transportation Security Administration workers today will begin interviewing passengers entering Delta Air Lines Inc.’s terminal in Detroit in an expansion of its so-called behavior detection program, Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman, said.

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport joins Boston’s Logan International as a test site for the program, in which TSA employees briefly talk to passengers to assess whether they might be involved in terrorist activities. The technique has been called “chat-downs” by Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House homeland security committee, who has questioned whether it works.

All passengers at checkpoints involved in the test are required to answer questions when they encounter the agency’s document checker, before proceeding to baggage X-ray and passenger screening. The interview lasts about one minute and resembles an encounter at a U.S. Customs checkpoint.

Trained behavior-detection officers have interviewed more than 110,000 passengers since the program began Aug. 15 at Terminal A of Boston Logan, George Naccara, TSA’s federal security director at the airport, said in a interview last week.

Wait Times

The interactions haven’t increased waiting times in airport lines, Naccara said. TSA is assessing efficiency and other aspects of behavior detection during the test phase, Naccara said.

Forty passengers, many of them saying they were in a rush to make flights, have declined to chat and triggered “additional” security measures, Naccara said, without disclosing what that means.

Suspicious behavior detected during the chats has led to 10 arrests on charges including being in the U.S. illegally and having an outstanding warrant, Naccara said.

“We don’t have someone who admitted to being a terrorist,” Naccara said. “We’re detecting people who are attempting to deceive us. There are similar behaviors exhibited. There’s no distinction.”

The experiment in Boston and Detroit is a more intense form of the people-watching that the TSA has been doing for seven years through an effort called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT.

In that program, about 3,000 officers trained in observational techniques circulate through 160 airports. Instead of engaging every passenger at a checkpoint, as in Boston, they roam and talk to people they’ve identified as suspicious.

SPOT has cost the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, about $1 billion since 2007, according to a Government Accountability Office report in July.

--Editors: Bernard Kohn, Steve Geimann

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Bykowicz in Washington at jbykowicz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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