BOSTON — More than 30 federal officers in an airport program intended to spot telltale mannerisms of potential terrorists say the operation has become a magnet for racial profiling, targeting not only Middle Easterners but also blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.
In interviews and internal complaints, officers from the Transportation Security Administration’s “behavior detection” program at Logan International Airport in Boston asserted that passengers who fit certain profiles — Hispanics traveling to Miami, for instance, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward — are much more likely to be stopped, searched and questioned for “suspicious” behavior.
“They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” said one white officer, who along with four others spoke with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.
The T.S.A. said on Friday that it had opened an investigation into the claims.
While the Obama administration has attacked the use of racial and ethnic profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, the claims by the Boston officers now put the agency and the administration in the awkward position of defending themselves against charges of profiling in a program billed as a model for airports nationwide.
At a meeting last month with T.S.A. officials, officers at Logan provided written complaints about profiling from 32 officers, some of whom wrote anonymously. Officers said managers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals had led co-workers to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems.
The practice has become so prevalent, some officers said, that Massachusetts State Police officials have asked why minority members appear to make up an overwhelming number of the cases that the airport refers to them.
“The behavior detection program is no longer a behavior-based program, but it is a racial profiling program,” one officer wrote in an anonymous complaint obtained by The Times.
A T.S.A. spokesman said agency inspectors recently learned of the racial profiling claims in Boston. “If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity,” the statement said.
The agency emphasized that the behavior detection program “in no way encourages or tolerates profiling” and bans singling out passengers based on nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.
It is unusual for transportation agency employees to come forward with this kind of claim against co-workers, and the large number of employees bringing complaints in Boston could prove particularly damaging for an agency already buffeted with criticism over pat-downs, X-ray scans and other security measures.
Reports of profiling emerged last year at the behavior programs at the Newark and Hawaii airports, but in much smaller numbers than those described in Boston.
The complaints from the Logan officers carry nationwide implications because Boston is the testing ground for an expanded use of behavioral detection methods at airports around the country.
While 161 airports already use behavioral officers to identify possible terrorist activity — a controversial tactic — the agency is considering expanding the use of what it says are more advanced tactics nationwide, with Boston’s program as a model.
The program in place in Boston uses specially trained behavioral “assessors” not only to scan the lines of passengers for unusual activity, but also to speak individually with each passenger and gauge their reactions while asking about their trip or for other information.
The assessors look for inconsistencies in the answers and other signs of unusual behavior, like avoiding eye contact, sweating or fidgeting, officials said. A passenger considered to be acting suspiciously can be pulled from the line and subjected to more intensive questioning.
That is what happened last month at Logan airport to Kenneth Boatner, 68, a psychologist and educational consultant in Boston who was traveling to Atlanta for a business trip.
In a formal complaint he filed with the agency afterward, he said he was pulled out of line and detained for 29 minutes as agents thumbed through his checkbook and examined his clients’ clinical notes, his cellphone and other belongings.
The officers gave no explanation, but Dr. Boatner, who is black, said he suspected the reason he was stopped was his race and appearance. He was wearing sweat pants, a white T-shirt and high-top sneakers.
He said he felt humiliated. “I had never been subjected to anything like that,” he said in an interview.
Officers in Boston acknowledged that they had no firm data on how frequently minority members were stopped. But based on their own observations, several officers estimated that they accounted for as many as 80 percent of passengers searched during certain shifts.
The officers identified nearly two dozen co-workers who they said consistently focused on stopping minority members in response to pressure from managers to meet certain threshold numbers for referrals to the State Police, federal immigration officials or other agencies.
The stops were seen as a way of padding the program’s numbers and demonstrating to Washington policy makers that the behavior program was producing results, several officers said.
Instead, the officers said, profiling undermined the usefulness of the program. Focusing on minority members, said a second officer who was interviewed by The Times, “takes officers away from the real threat, and we could miss a terrorist we are looking for.”
Some Boston officers went to the American Civil Liberties Union with their complaints of profiling, and Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer in the group’s Boston office, interviewed eight officers.
“Selecting people based on race or ethnicity was a way of finding easy marks,” she said. “It was a notch in your belt.”
The transportation agency said it did not collect information on the race or ethnicity of travelers and could not provide such a breakdown of passengers stopped through the behavior program.
But the agency defended the program’s overall value. Behavior detection “is clearly an effective means of identifying people engaged in activity that may threaten the security of the passengers and the airports and has become a very effective intelligence tool, enabling law enforcement to bust larger operations and track any trends in nefarious activity,” the agency said in its statement.
“In addition, the deterrent value of the program can’t be overstated,” it said. Monitoring passengers’ behavior “adds another layer of security to the airport environment and presents the terrorists with yet one more challenge they need to overcome” in their efforts to defeat airport security measures, the agency said.
But government analysts and some researchers say the idea of spotting possible terrorists from their behavior in a security line relies on dubious science.
A critical assessment of the program in 2010 by the Government Accountability Office noted that aviation officials began the behavior program in 2003, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, without first determining if it had a scientific basis.
Nine years later, this question remains largely unanswered, even as the agency moves to expand the program, the accountability office said in a follow-up report last year. It said that until the agency is able to better study and document the validity of the science, Congress might consider freezing tens of millions of dollars budgeted for the program’s growth.
Based on past research, the accountability office said the link between a person’s behavior and mental state is strongest in reading “simple emotions” like happiness and sadness.
August 11, 2012
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC LICHTBLAU
© 2012 The New York Times Company