As one Massachusetts lawmaker called Monday for a congressional hearing on allegations of racial profiling by Transportation Security Administration officers at Logan International Airport, aviation safety specialists questioned the agency’s oversight of its program to detect suspicious behavior among passengers.
More than 30 TSA officers participating in the program at the Boston airport filed internal complaints about colleagues, asserting that they focused on minorities during security checks, The New York Times reported Sunday. More than a half-dozen white and minority officers also brought their concerns to the Boston office of the American Civil Liberties Union. The TSA is investigating.
Logan became the first US airport to implement behavior detection in 2003, modeling the program on Israeli security techniques — now used at 161 American airports — to identify passengers as suspicious based on appearance, body language, and responses to questions. Last summer, Logan became the first airport to have TSA agents test expanded behavior detection measures by questioning all travelers passing through certain security checkpoints. That program has since expanded to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.
Combining human interactions and technology is crucial for an effective security program as long as it is done without singling out certain groups of people, said US Representative William Keating, Democrat of Bourne, who called Monday for a congressional hearing into the racial profiling claims. “When you deal with issues as fundamental as people’s civil rights, and national issues as important as our security, particularly through the air, then an independent investigation should take place outside of the agency itself,” said Keating, a ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security’s oversight and investigation subcommittee.
The TSA officers who lodged the complaints told the Times that passengers who matched a certain description — blacks wearing backward baseball caps, or Hispanics going to Miami, for example — were more likely to be questioned. The officers said supervisor demand for a high number of stops and criminal referrals led their colleagues to target minorities as they sought individuals with immigration issues, drugs, or outstanding warrants.
“What is supposed to be a terrorist-related behavior detection program has been subverted for a totally different purpose, if you believe the Times story,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage, and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. “Maybe you’re making security worse by allocating resources for nonterrorist purposes.”
Besides legal and ethical issues, racial profiling often results in huge error rates and less security for low-probability behavior such as terrorism, said Bloom, who has authored a forthcoming book on psychological profiling.
The TSA said it does not collect information on the race or ethnicity of passengers who are stopped by its officers, a revelation that Theodore Postol, an MIT professor of international security, finds disturbing. “This can’t be a useful program if they aren’t trying to collect data,” said Postol, pointing out that airport cameras could be used to monitor those pulled aside for additional screening. “They should have known within weeks of starting this if there was race-based and ethnic-based profiling by simply checking the videos of people who were stopped.”
The TSA’s behavior detection efforts have also been questioned in several reports from the Government Accountability Office, which said that TSA implemented the program without determining whether its tactics were scientifically valid.
In a statement issued Sunday, the TSA said the program complies with federal civil rights policies, and was developed with the approval of behavioral analysis specialists.
“Our behavior detection program is, in fact, an antidote to racial profiling, and officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity,” the agency said.
The TSA declined to comment further on Monday.
The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, said earlier that racial profiling is illegal and ineffective and it is “eager to review the findings of a federal investigation.”
Some security analysts argue it is vital that TSA agents be allowed to rely on their gut, to some extent, when it comes to choosing the travelers they subject to additional scrutiny. “The beauty of the human element is it is random. You don’t know how Police Officer A or TSA Officer B will react,” said professor Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, adding that this keeps terrorists from knowing what to expect.
It makes sense to focus on people who pose the greatest likelihood of danger, Sheffi said, as long as the program is more closely monitored and agents are well trained so they don’t abuse their power.
“A tall bearded man from Yemen is more likely to blow up a plane than an 80-year-old grandmother from Kansas City,” he said. “So therefore, the tall bearded man from Yemen should be stopped more often. The main objective is safety, not fairness.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the town that Representative William Keating lives in.