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TSA Checklist Exposed: “Suspicious Signs” Include Throat Clearing, Whistling & “Exaggerated Yawning”

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Next time you are at an airport, you may not want to gaze down at your feet. But also be careful not to stare at anyone with your eyes wide open. Both of these behaviors are listed on a “suspicious signs” checklist used by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. The Intercept obtained the confidential document from a source concerned about the quality of the program. The document shows how the TSA identifies potential terrorists based on behaviors that it thinks indicate stress or deception, including “fidgeting,” “whistling” and “throat clearing.” The checklist is part of the TSA’s controversial program known as the “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.” It employs specially trained officers, known as behavior detection officers, to watch and interact with passengers going through screening. The TSA has trained and deployed thousands of these officers, spending more than $900 million on this program since its inception in 2007. However, the Government Accountability Office has found there is no evidence to back up the claim that “behavioral indicators … can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.” We are joined by Cora Currier, staff reporter for The Intercept, whose new article, co-written with Jana Winter, is “TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an exclusive new report by The Intercept. Next time you’re at an airport, you may not want to gaze down at your feet. But also be careful not to stare at anyone with your eyes wide open. That’s because both of these behaviors are listed on a “suspicious signs” checklist used by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA. The Intercept obtained the confidential document from a source concerned about the quality of the program. The document shows how the TSA identifies potential terrorists based on behaviors that it thinks indicate stress or deception, including fidgeting, whistling, throat clearing. The checklist is part of the TSA’s controversial program known as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, program. It employs specially trained officers, known as behavior detection officers, to watch and interact with passengers going through screening.

For more, we’re joined by Cora Currier, staff reporter for The Intercept. Her new article is co-written with Jana Winter. It’s called “Exclusive: TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists.”

Cora, welcome to Democracy Now!

CORA CURRIER: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what this list actually—what the behaviors are that the TSA are watching out for.

CORA CURRIER: So, we obtained a 92-point checklist that has a—it’s divided into sort of initial—a section on initial observations, which is used by the officers who are sort of looking at passengers approaching the screening area, and then a second category of signs of deception, which is used when they sort of pull someone aside for further screening, and finally, you know, might even use to refer them to law enforcement. The behaviors on this list range from the mind-numbingly obvious—I mean, things that you—you think that the TSA might have some sort of mustachio-twirling cartoon villain in mind: whistling when you approach the security screening area, rubbing or wringing of hands. Appears to be in disguise was my personal favorite. And then other of them are so broad as like to apply to almost anybody you could imagine—you know, yawning, as you mentioned.

AMY GOODMAN: And why yawning?

CORA CURRIER: We don’t know. This is supposed to be one of—exaggerated yawning is one of the characteristics that they’ve decided could be a sign of deception. Throat clearing, strong body odor was one of them. Inappropriate dress for the location. So they’re just—face flushed, nervous, running late for a flight. I mean, these are things that could apply—any one of us could look like at any given time we’re in an airport.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what is the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union suing over?

CORA CURRIER: So, they asked last fall for a bunch of documents specifically related to this program through a Freedom of Information Act request. My understanding is the TSA sort of stonewalled on it, so they’re suing to get those documents released. They’ve asked for the science behind this program, the training lists, things like this checklist, basically, and also any information about how this program has—handles racial—the potential for racial profiling or incidents of racial profiling, because that’s really one of the main concerns about it is that it’s just a smokescreen for pulling over people of certain ethnicities or minorities.

AMY GOODMAN: The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has defended its conduct, saying it’s taking a, quote, “commonsense approach.” In a statement to The Intercept, the TSA said, quote, “No single behavior alone will cause a traveler to be referred to additional screening or will result in a call to a law enforcement officer.” The TSA also denied claims of racial profiling, saying, quote, “Officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.” Is there a scientific basis for the list of behaviors they’re screening for?

CORA CURRIER: So, there’s a sort of small minority of researchers who believe that you can use these sort of micro—they call them sort of micro-facial indicators or body language indicators, to decide if somebody is being deceptive or sort of has a plot, something up their sleeve. But the Government Accountability Office did a sort of meta-review of scientific literature specifically related to this program and found that, you know, humans were—the consensus seems to be that humans are really bad at determining, just by these kind of behavioral indicators, whether someone is lying. They did not find that there was science to back up that you could use these detectors to determine whether someone was being deceptive or carrying something out.

AMY GOODMAN: How much has the TSA spent on this program?

CORA CURRIER: At least a billion dollars to date. In 2013, when the GAO put out their report, it was upwards of $900 million. And it’s been going since 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: Two black women told Reuters the TSA agreed to stop screening of black female passengers based on their sisterlocks hairstyles?

CORA CURRIER: Yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot of reports of TSA officers coming forward and saying that this is just—you know, that they look for particular minorities, that they go through—you know, that this list is just used as a pretense. And that’s what one of our sources told us. I mean, he called it a license to harass.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you say to those who say now you have gotten this list—was it classified?

CORA CURRIER: It’s not classified, no. It hadn’t been released, but it’s not classified.

AMY GOODMAN: It hadn’t been released. And now people will know, terrorists will know, what not to do.

CORA CURRIER: I mean, I just—I challenge anybody not to blink or look down or look straight ahead or do any of the number of behaviors that are supposedly suspicious on this list. And, you know, when you look at some of the recent high-profile things, there was a man in—I think it was Louisiana, who attacked the TSA screening area with a machete. I mean, you probably don’t need a list to look for someone like that.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this search for these kind of, quote, “suspicious behaviors” relate to the no-fly list?

CORA CURRIER: So, there’s—we don’t know, actually, what the direct relation between the two is. I mean, this program is obviously used to refer people to law enforcement to refer to people for further screening. And, you know, the whole no-fly list selection process is itself shrouded in so much secrecy that it’s really hard to say how this plays into it, but there’s very likely a connection between the two.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people are on the no-fly list, or are there a number of them?

CORA CURRIER: There—

AMY GOODMAN: A number of lists?

CORA CURRIER: I think there’s several different ones. I don’t have the number off the top of my head.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, further, what has the government said to you when you tried to get their response?

CORA CURRIER: They wouldn’t confirm or comment on this particular list. They—as you said, they said they have a commonsense approach, that there’s no—they pushed back on the idea that they look for people who are just stressed or late for flights, that this is not—that it’s more commonsense than it looks on paper. I mean, sort of what’s funny is they were sort of denying what it looks like on its face, that it’s more practical than that. And they say they use a sort of layered approach. And again, some of the factors on here are really—seem like really commonsense things to look for somebody acting suspiciously, but the vast majority of them are really asinine.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Cora Currier, staff reporter for The Intercept. Her new article, co-written with Jana Winter, “TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists,” we’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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