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Feeling Nervous? 3,000 Behavior Detection Officers Will Be Watching You at the Airport This Thanksgiving

By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted November 24, 2009.

Nearly 100,000 passengers were pulled aside by TSA behavior watchers last year, and it remains to be proven whether you can spot terrorists by the looks on their faces.

Here’s a question to ponder the next time you’re taking off your shoes at airport security: Can you spot terrorists by the look on their faces?

For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the answer is yes. For the past few years, airports across the country have been using what many call “behavioral surveillance” to weed out potential hijackers among us, by covertly examining travelers’ facial expressions and body language as they go through security. Unlike those airport employees who herd us along as we remove our shoes and relinquish all liquids over three ounces (with dubious results), this new program, named “Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques,” or “SPOT,” is carried out by TSA employees who have been trained to monitor travelers’ faces and movements. As Americans head out of town this holiday season, more than 3,000 “Behavior Detection Officers” will be at 161 airports nationwide, watching our every move.

The TSA boasts that the SPOT program is “derivative of other successful behavioral analysis programs that have been employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and around the world.” Yet, the success of the SPOT program remains highly questionable. This month the Washington Post reported that, in 2008 alone, Behavior Detection Officers across the country pulled 98,805 passengers aside for additional screenings, out of which 9,854 were questioned by local police. 813 were eventually arrested.

The cost of the program, according to TSA spokesperson Ann Davis, was $3.1 million.

In an e-mail correspondence with AlterNet, Davis could not say how many of the 813 arrests led to convictions — or for that matter, whether any terrorists were caught. “Many of the SPOT cases that resulted in arrests remain under active investigation by law enforcement,” she said. “TSA doesn’t always hear back from the investigative agencies on the outcome of the cases so we cannot track convictions.”

But as Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis points out, “Even if the arrests are justified, they are less than 1 percent of the total singled out. What happens to more than 9,000 who are subjected to questioning and released?”

This question cuts to the heart of protests by civil liberties advocates and others who argue that, not only is the SPOT program a violation of people’s privacy, but it is actually counterproductive, a wasteful exercise in false positives.

“By the math alone, rare events are impossible to accurately detect,” says Soldz. “One will either miss most of what one is interested in [false negatives] or else identify many people falsely [false positives].”

MORE HERE

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Pat Robertson, on The 700 Club yesterday, got in on the collective right-wing teeth-gnashing over that Department of Homeland Security bulletin on the threat posed by right-wing extremists in America.

You know, the controversy that’s been demonstrated to be a lot of hot air — not to mention a terribly revealing one about how mainstream right-wingers see themselves.

Not that such mere trifles would ever deter Pat Robertson. His attack on the DHS yesterday, alongside his coanchor Terry Meeuwsen, featured an unending stream of flatly false information and mischaracterizations. Plus, of course, the requisite gay-bashing and liberal bashing, all wrapped up in a neat little ball:

Robertson: If that had been a Republican, there would be outrage and screams for Janet Napolitano to resign immediately. That — Terry, you’re somebody who favors life, wants to keep little babies alive. Somebody who has been a veteran and served our country as a proud member of the military. Somebody who is opposed to the left-wing policies of the administration and who wants to express his or her views as they are entitled to under our Constitution, these people are now being stigmatized as terrorists! This is an outrage!

Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to do something about it. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what would. And I want you to call a number. This is the Department of Homeland Security.

[Reads number]

… And just say you protest. This is an outrage!

And Janet Napolitano has got a lot of explaining to do. And that lame excuse she was giving — ‘Oh, I’m sorry they characterized all veterans that way’ — I mean, come off it!

Meeuwsen: The report was the report. I mean, it is astonishing that it was allowed to leave under that —

Robertson: It — it shows somebody down in the bowels of that organization is either a convinced left-winger or somebody whose sexual orientation is somewhat in question.

But it’s that kind of thing, somebody who doesn’t think that we should have abortion on demand, is labeled a terrorist! It’s outrageous!

VIDEO And MORE HERE

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