Time magazine recently reported that the Transportation Security Administration, the American agency charged with protecting airplanes, has concluded that the "most dangerous threat to commercial aviation is not so much the things bad people may be carrying, but the bad people themselves."
Accordingly, Time goes on, the TSA is launching a passenger profiling system known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT. Under SPOT, the TSA staff learns to recognize suspicious personal behavior. "Passengers who flag concerns by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior will be pointed out to local police, who will then conduct face-to-face interviews to determine whether any threat exists."
However belatedly, the Bush administration has recognized that terrorists, more than the tools of their trade, must be watched and stopped. This amounts to a gigantic step forward in the protection of American travelers. The administration deserves congratulations for the courage to accept the need for profiling.
But SPOT is just a first step. Skilled terrorists learn how not to be nervous or give off other tell-tale signs. To be fully effective, profiling must focus on something more inherent to terrorism than anxiety. What might that be? Here is where the debate gets both productive and interesting.
Michael A. Smerconish, a radio talk-show host and columnist in the Philadelphia Daily News, argues in his new and brave book Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11 (Running Press), that the key factor is race and ethnicity. In contrast, I hold that the key is not external attributes but what is in a person's head, namely Islamist beliefs.
Smerconish writes "We're fighting a war against young Arab male extremists, and yet our government continues to enforce politically correct ‘random screening' of airline passengers instead of targeting those who look like terrorists."
He calls for a change in policy: "Logic dictates that airport security take a longer, harder look at individuals who have ethnic, religious, nationality, and appearance factors in common with the Islamic extremist Middle Eastern men who have initiated war against us."
This is a step in the right direction, but like SPOT, it is just a start. Yes, young Arab male extremists have carried out most terrorist attacks in the West. Yes, focusing on observable traits like Arabic names or a Middle Eastern appearance is easily done. But, like nervousness, these are crude criteria that do not get to the heart of the problem, which is the Islamist ideology.
A significant number of Islamist terrorists in the West are not Arab or immigrants at all. Their ranks include converts who began life with names like Ryan Anderson, David Belfield, Willie Brigitte, Jerome & David Courtailler, Michael Christian Ganczarski, Clement Rodney Hampton-el, Mark Fidel Kools, Jose Padilla, Adam Pearlman, Richard Reid, Pierre Robert, Jack Roche, and Steven Smyrek. These converts grew up in the West, speak Western languages with no accent, and know the local sports heroes. Some of them are even blond.
Terrorists are not stupid; focusing on Arabs, as Smerconish urges, will prompt them to turn to non-Arab operatives. This is already a concern. Jean-Louis Bruguière, the leading French anti-terrorist investigating judge, warned along these lines in May 2003, recounts Robert Leiken, that "al-Qaida had stepped up its European recruiting efforts and was on the lookout for women and light-skinned converts in particular." The deputy director of a French intelligence agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, even told Mr. Leiken that "converts are our most critical work now."
Smerconish responds to my argument by acknowledging that his book may at some point become obsolete, "but that day is not today." He sees physical appearance remaining a key predictor of intentions.
True, young Arab males still play a disproportionate role, but his approach nearly guarantees that will change. Law enforcement should now begin worrying about motives. Islamism, a radical reading of the Islamic religion, prompts Islamist terrorism, not speaking Arabic.
Airport security personnel has found it a challenge merely to catch weapons; finding Arab would-be terrorists will prove more difficult and stopping malign Islamists will be hardest of all, for it requires TSA knowing in some depth who's who among passengers. But this is the gold standard of counterterrorism and it should, starting immediately, be its goal.
Dec. 28, 2005 update: The behavior analysis program started in Boston is being extended to forty U.S. airports, TSA has announced. To which I say: that's a step forward, but just a small one.
Aug. 13, 2006 update: News on SPOT from the Newark Star-Ledger:
The Transportation Security Administration says [the SPOT] approach, which was tested at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 2003, will not be as intense as Israel’s. Security people will be trained to ask questions after observing unusual behavior—such as failure to make eye contact, inappropriate clothing for the season, or loitering that might be a scouting mission.
TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis confirmed the agency is expanding SPOT this fall, though she declined to say where. “We’re looking for those behaviors that are indicative of extremely high levels of stress, fear and deception,” said Davis. “This program is the antidote to racial profiling, because the program focuses strictly on behaviors, and not on the passenger’s race or ethnicity.”
Aug. 14, 2006 update: More news on SPOT, from the Wall Street Journal:
A small program now is using screening officers to watch travelers for suspicious behavior. “It may be the only thing I know of that favors the human solution instead of technology,” says TSA chief Kip Hawley. The people-based program—called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT—began undergoing tests at Boston’s Logan Airport after 9/11 and has expanded to about a dozen airports. Trained teams watch travelers in security lines and elsewhere. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day, but also for subtle signs like vocal timbre, gestures and tiny facial movements that indicate someone is trying to disguise an emotion.
TSA officers observe passengers while consulting a list of more than 30 questionable behaviors, each of which has a numerical score. If someone scores high enough, an officer approaches the person and asks a few questions. “All you know is there’s an emotion being concealed. You have to find out why the emotion is occurring,” says Paul Ekman, a San Francisco psychologist who pioneered work on facial expressions and is informally advising the TSA. “You can find out very quickly.”
More than 80% of those approached are quickly dismissed, he says. The explanations for hiding emotions often are innocent: A traveler might be stressed out from work, worried about missing a flight or sad because a relative just died. If suspicions remain, the traveler is interviewed at greater length by a screener with more specialized training. SPOT teams have identified about 100 people who were trying to smuggle drugs, use fake IDs and commit other crimes, but not terrorist acts.
Aug. 15, 2006 update: John Tierney of the New York Times reports on an experiment in 2003 concerning international flights at Dulles Airport, outside Washington, D.C., that may be the same SPOT program described above
The screeners at Dulles stopped worrying about pen knives, shoes and laptops, allowing passengers to pass through more quickly. The speed of the line increased by nearly a third. The screening process required fewer workers, but they detected more problems because they worked smarter.
Instead of looking for things, they looked at people. Borrowing techniques from Israeli airports and the U.S. Customs Service, screeners observed a passenger as he entered the airport, checked luggage and stood in line at the security checkpoint.
The screeners were looking for unusual behavior like sweating, rigid posture, clenched fists. A screener would engage a passenger in conversation and ask questions he wouldn’t have been trained to expect, like whether he’d seen a Redskins game the night before even though the Redskins hadn’t played.
The screeners were looking for telltale body language of someone trying too hard to act natural. When they spotted it, they singled out that person for interrogation, a pat-down and a luggage search. The screeners caught no terrorists, but they consistently found people with something to hide, often a forged visa, a stolen airline ticket, drugs or other smuggled goods.
Aug. 20, 2006 update: The Sunday Times (London) provides more details on SPOT, in the course of reporting that the program will shortly be implemented in the U.K.
The Spot teams, who are in uniform and work in pairs at US airports, use a list of more than 30 unusual behaviours against which to check passengers. Some things they look for are obvious, such as a person wearing a coat on a hot day or pacing around, but there are more subtle signs. “They are all things that people do with their posture, with their hands, with their heads, with their voice if you can hear it and with their gestures,” said Ekman. In particular, officers are trained to recognise concealed emotion, such as fear or anxiety. These so-called “micro-facial expressions” appear on a person’s face for 1/25th of a second. “They are so fast, that unless you’ve been trained you don’t see them,” said Ekman.
If a passenger’s behaviour gives cause for concern, the Spot officers ask a few casual questions, such as the reason for travelling. Those who arouse further suspicion are referred to other law enforcement officers for screening, and, if found to be involved in criminality, barred from flying.