A key Republican lawmaker is calling for quick fixes to a trial airport security program intended to catch terrorists by picking up on suspicious behavior.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he will ask the Transportation Security Administration to revamp the program, which is known by its critics as “chat down.”
Mica told the Boston Herald that, while visiting Boston’s Logan International Airport earlier this month to check the security program, “What I saw was a mundane, intense bureaucratic exercise.”
The test program requires TSA agents to look for suspicious behavioral clues as they ask passengers routine questions. Mica said what he heard during his visit to Logan this month was “mindless chat with every passenger” that was a far cry from the more probing Israeli-style airport questioning that the program is modeled after and that Mica has praised in the past.
“It’s still not a risk-based system,” he said. “It’s not a thinking system.”
As The Huffington Post reported earlier this week, Mica said that while he was at Logan he watched about a dozen agents quiz passengers. “I put my ear up and listened to some idiotic questions,” he said, citing questions asking where travelers were coming from, why they had been there and where they were going.
The news accounts did not indicate what kinds of questions Mica would want TSA agents to raise. Under the Israeli approach, as one security expert told The New York Times last year, agents “focus on the travelers’ country of origin, their profession, visas that are stamped in their passports, places they have visited, people they know and the color of their skin. If you say you’re a Renaissance art scholar, they’ll ask you if you know who Titian is.”
Mica, however, raised another issue: Even though, under the trial program, passengers selected for further screening are supposed to go through body scanners, on the day he visited, the machines were out of service because there weren’t enough trained personnel to run them.
TSA officials in Boston bridled at the congressman’s remarks. George Naccara, the agency’s security director at Logan, said his behavior detection officers received five days of classroom training and up to 32 hours of on-the-job training.
Since it was launched at Logan late this summer, the program has screened about 165,000 passengers. The TSA has referred a dozen people to law enforcement authorities, mostly for immigration violations or outstanding warrants, Naccara said.
The trial now is being expanded to Detroit, and Mica is seeking changes before it is extended further. Mica is a frequent critic of TSA even though, as The Hill points out, he helped write the law that created the agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.