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Nov. 15 2009 - 12:10 pm | 40 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

Covert officers spy on passengers in US airports

A TSA officer keeps an eye on passengers at the Fort Lauderdale airport. One behavor-detection officer said chatting with travelers allows him to pick up any potential danger signs. (Carey Wagner / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / October 19, 2009)

The Transportation Security Administration has admitted to stationing “behavior-detection officers” at 161 US airports, including in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles.

The officers can be anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, looking for passengers who seem highly nervous or stressed.

If that description seems vague, that’s because it is. Who isn’t nervous and stressed out at an airport? After enduring the always colorful commute to the airport, taking off my shoes, having strangers rifle through my belongings, setting off the metal detector at least 18 times — and then having some huge Russian-looking man-woman grope my boobs and ask if my bra has an underwire (Yes, don’t most bras?) — jamming all of my shit back into my suitcase, freaking out when the airport changes my gates, and then running back across the airport to my new gate, I probably also look like a terrorist hell-bent on destroying the west.

Of course, I’m not a brown person, so I’m sure my grumblings of “wanting to blow up the place” don’t raise any eyebrows.

TSA wants you to know they don’t focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, and you’re just going to have to take their word on that.

Officers have been very busy with the program. Last year, they required nearly 99,000 passengers nationwide to undergo additional screenings. Police questioned about 9,900 passengers and arrested 813.

As tends to happen when thousands of passengers are targeted, the officers have caught a few bad apples in these broad sweeps. There was a guy who was trying to sneak $2.5 million worth of Ecstasy in his carry-on bag. Then there was a vague story about some guy bolting when he was flagged for secondary screening. The story never explains why he ran. Though, it does mention that he broke his arm during the pursuit, and officers found “several IDs” on him, which I guess means he was the next Osama bin Laden.

There is also a story about an officer starting a “friendly conversation” with a red-eyed man, who the officer assumed was stoned on the marijuana. Turns out, the guy was just tired because he’d been on an airplane for a few hours. “He was pretty calm,” says the officer.

“We’re not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors,” says Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for TSA. Yet, in order to become a behavior-detection officer, no background in behavior analysis is required. Officers undergo four days of behavior training, which includes trying to spot would-be terrorists, then receive 24 hours of on-the-job training. Basically, it’s more difficult to get a certificate in unicycle-riding excellence than it is to become a behavior-detection officer.

And yet we’re told these average Joes, who have undergone less than a week’s worth of behavior detection training are using only their vast expertise in behavioral observation — and not their preexisting prejudices or fears — to harass airport passengers.

The article includes the following statement from some douchebag businessman named Alex: “Honestly, I haven’t even noticed them. They must be doing a good job. It’s better to have more security than not enough.”

Hey, thanks for contributing to the conversation, Alex.

This is the biggest platitude uttered by terrified middle-class people in America: “I’d rather give up all my freedoms so at least I know I’m safe!” These are the people who would happily live in a total police state as long as they got five minutes each day to check their e-mail: At least they’re keeping us safe! Oo, my IKEA table was shipped today!

Alex’s bizarre statement would confound the Founding Fathers, who would likely recoil in disgust when confronted by such a spineless declaration. Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” I like to imagine he’d then get Alex in a headlock and noogie him until he screamed that freedom is precious, and worth fighting to preserve.

What people like Franklin were able to understand is that it’s impossible to be completely safe all the time unless one willingly surrenders all their freedoms and hides within a police state, adjunct of an overbearing government that shields Americans from the world and all her inherent dangers.

Ironically, Republicans — the supposed fans of small government — enthusiastically embraced this police state during the Bush administration, and are now the leading champions of these secret programs designed to “get the bad guys.” If that means squashing freedom in the process, so be it.

Like most covert programs, there’s no public data available for which passengers are detained and harassed in this program. We don’t know how many people of color are detained, or what the program’s success rate is. For all we know, those 813 arrests came after the unnecessary harassment of 20,000 individuals.

Of the 813 arrests, we don’t know how many are serious criminals, and how many are petty crooks. Supposedly, at least one of the 813 had a suitcase of Ecstasy. Are thousands of civil rights violations worth convicting a dude with a suitcase full of a drug that one British government official called less dangerous than alcohol?

I’m sure Alex thinks so.


4 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Better we should worry about another 9/11, then?
    Watching the government bail out banks and their billionaire-bonusing bosses offends me a lot more.

    • collapse expand

      The “another possible 9/11″ excuse has been the cover for all kinds of radical programs like warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. I’d much rather see the government work on preventing future terrorists, say, by leaving the two foreign countries we’re currently occupying and ceasing the drone attacks on Pakistan.

      PS: With you on the bailouts and bonuses. That is also quite shitty.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I take your larger point. I wish I were optimistic enough to think that that would make a difference, but I am not persuaded even those actions would make this country safer from people who loathe it and its values.

    • collapse expand

      and its values

      Well, we’re not usually dealing with terrorists that hate our strip malls and easily accessible credit. They actually have very specific grievances with the US government that have nothing to do with “our values”– namely the presence of military bases in their countries and the US government’s unquestioning support of Israel. If both those grievances were addressed, would terrorism disappear? Of course not. Terrorism will always be with us, but there are smarter ways to approach the issue than creating a police state and an endless supply of new “terrorists” to kill, maim, and indefinitely incarcerate. The goal should always be to minimalize suffering, and not to create endless war.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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