Opinion

Now the TSA wants to interrogate us, too

Becky Akers Freelance Writer

You would think that ogling passengers in carcinogenic scanners, stripping diapers from little old ladies who are dying of cancer and molesting children would be enough mischief for any agency. But no. Now the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants us to chat with our assailants. Why? Because it pretends they can read our minds for “malintent.”

And so the TSA is stationing behavior detection officers (BDOs) at Boston’s Logan International Airport as part of what it bills as a test. “The vast majority of passengers will experience a casual greeting conversation with the BDO as they go through identity verification,” said one of the agency’s innumerable flacks.

As always, the TSA tries to hide its despotism behind jargon. A “casual greeting conversation with the BDO” — or with anyone wearing a government uniform — is an interrogation.

The TSA says its interrogators will ask a few questions, such as where you’ve been and whether you have a business card. From your answers, screeners who have failed every test of their skills at discovering concealed weapons on undercover investigators — even when screeners’ supervisors cheat and describe not only the investigator but the location of the weapon — will supposedly discover your innermost thoughts.

What happens if you don’t answer correctly, i.e., as the agent thinks you should? Other officers, including cops, interrogate you further — and possibly arrest you. But of course, they don’t judge merely your words. In fact, the TSA brags about how subjective these “greeting conversations” and its employees are: Fox News reports that “those who exhibit suspicious behavior like avoiding eye contact and struggling with answers will be pulled aside for more screening.” And if merely eschewing a TSA screener’s beady stare marks a “terrorist,” what about passengers who fail to smile, who are brusque because they fear missing their flight or whose heads are bowed from grief?

One of the behavior detection program’s early successes was catching a guy on his way to his brother’s funeral. But Paul Ekman, an enthusiastic proponent of behavior detection who helped the TSA establish this boondoggle, crowed to The Washington Post that he knew something was wrong with “the man in the cheap brown jacket” because he “stood slumped in line, staring at the ground.” Screeners interrogated him until he admitted to being sad about his sibling’s death. Apparently, neither Ekman nor the TSA see anything amiss with a government that harasses mourners. We call foreign nations that abuse their taxpayers this way “totalitarian.”

Though the TSA claims to be “testing” behavior detection in Boston, the scam has actually cursed American airports since 2003 — despite controversy among scientists over whether it’s merely a waste of time and money or whether it actually endangers passengers by offering the credulous a false sense of security. Either way, there is not a scintilla of evidence that it works, just testimony from Paul Ekman that it does. Surely the cool million the TSA paid him in August 2007 didn’t sway his judgment.

BDOs currently spy on and interrogate passengers at 161 airports. Their record is encouraging only if your goal is hassling folks carrying more cash than the feds say we should or sending kids with a few joints in their pockets to prison: those are the victims BDOs snare when they aren’t pestering anguished brothers. But if you hope to catch terrorists, BDOs are about as effective as the Tooth Fairy: the Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year that between May 2004 and August 2008, 16 alleged terrorists waltzed past BDOs on 23 different occasions. Not once did the BDOs even notice, let alone zero in on the terrorists.

Many passengers and pundits cheer the TSA’s “common sense” in unleashing BDOs on us. They apparently — and erroneously — assume that interrogation will replace the TSA’s sexual assaults. Which means they’ve fallen for a false dichotomy: either the TSA will gate-rape us or it will question us.

But there’s a third option: abolish this unconscionable bureaucracy. It menaces America far more than any terrorist.

Becky Akers is a freelance writer and historian whose articles have been published by Barron’s, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Independent Review and many other publications and websites.