“Arrives late for flight, if known”

It’s not rated as secret, but the Transportation Security Agency behavioural observation checklist and form for detecting possible terrorists has been disseminated on the web.

Unfortunately the checklist contains a large number of factors that are arguably simply normal behaviour when confronted by a wall of security, and the list has very low benchmarks for escalation.

I tried filling out the checklist for my own behaviours when flying. I’m not a good flyer – I don’t like crowds, can’t stand queues and loath inefficient systems. New Zealand’s airline systems are amongst the best in the world, but while going through security is usually a minor inconvenience, I can sometimes be a bit annoyed with it all.

The first section of the form is Observation and Behaviour Analysis for Stress, Fear and Deception Factors. I scored myself with 42 points, which is well above the limit for automatic referral to law enforcement officers of just 6 points.

The form starts badly, with the first item “Arrives late for flight, if known” (1 point) almost an automatic tick for me. The next item is “avoids eye contact with security personnel or LEO” (1 point), which, yes, I almost always do in a bid for efficiency at the security checkpoints. I have no interest in talking about my luggage, don’t want them to touch my stuff and lose 3 points with “Does not respond to authoritative commands” when I ignore the question of whether I have checked my pockets (I have). I can also lose points with the  “cold, penetrating stare” (2 points) that my be interpreted when I blankly ignore any inefficient security staff who are holding up travellers.

I also have my own rules about travelling with luggage – I never let it out of my sight, and don’t go through the personal scanner until my luggage is inside the luggage scanner. That loses me points for “hesitation/indecision on entering checkpoint or submitting to screening process” (2 points) and “does not respond to authoritative commands” (3 points) again, and as is becoming clear “displays arrogance and verbally expresses contempt for the screening process” (2 points) is potentially easy to pick up, especially when I am called out by the bomb screening people for the 5th time in a row.

Two of the easier ones for me to earn points are “scans area, appearing to look for security personnel or LEO” (2 points) which I do to figure out which is the shortest and most efficient queue, and “appears to be confused or disorientated” (3 points),  either because I am thinking about more important things or because the security system is new to me and I am seeking to understand what is happening.

The next part is something called SPOT resolution. I counted a score of 17 between the Signs of Deception and Unusual Items that I could carry. The limit for this section before escalation is just one – if you have tow or more then that law enforcement officer is called.

This part of the form reinforces that essentially everyone has to act to get through security. Travellers transiting from a long distance international flight, for example, could easily exhibit Signs of Deception like “delayed response to questions“, “Excessive comments about screening process“, “excessive perspiration” and, for those who forgot to brush their teeth towards the end of the flight “Covers mouth with hand when speaking“. Remember – any two of these and the law officer is called.

I’ve travelled through a lot of borders, and I do know that the best thing to do is to adopt a polite, submissive yet firm, and efficient yet endlessly patient approach. At some borders and security checkpoints you have to be very strict on yourself, and this form shows yet again that TSA security has very low tolerance for non conformance.

But I would strongly suspect that this list is not used, in practise, as rigidly as it is written, especially by experienced officers who are used to seeing, for example, a plane full of Kiwis transiting through LAX. But then again there is plenty on that list for an officer to escalate pretty much any passenger that they want to the next level. If the officers are experienced, well trained and well managed then that’s a good thing, but the reverse is true as well.

Because the issue here is that the “bad people” know about this list, have trained  for getting through security and tested themselves. Getting caught this way (without outside information) seems very rare – while the TSA brags about finding firearms on occasion, they seldom if ever talk about catching people with firearms who had intent to use them.

And there are giant holes in the system. Airline and sea cargo are the biggest gaps, but sadly in the last two years the major cause of (deliberate) aviation disasters appears to have from  actions from someone in the cockpit.

The economic cost of security, and most of it is borne by the passengers and airlines, needs to be appropriate to the size of the risk. I’m not convinced that we are close, even in New Zealand where our security systems are generally efficient. We are unfortunately, largely at the mercy of the US TSA, which drives international conduct. The TSA in turn is largely at the mercy of the US Congress who probably don’t even realise that they are the only ones that can fix this.

Published by Lance Wiggs