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Putting TSA's SPOT program on the spot

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   July 23, 2013 at 12:04 AM   |   Comments

HERNDON, Va., July 23 (UPI) -- In April 2008, a passenger entered Orlando airport to catch an Air Jamaica flight home. Fidgeting, his actions were noticed by observant fellow passengers who reported him to security, triggering a detailed search of his luggage. Unassembled pipe bomb parts, disguised in various containers and including a liquid -- nitromethane -- used in race car fuel were found. Had the appropriate heat source been introduced, nitromethane could have ignited the assembled device.

A terrorist attack was averted. The Jamaican's downfall had been his behavior.

Observing passenger behavior has long been a factor in highly successful aviation security programs, like that implemented by Israeli airlines El Al.

While the Transportation Security Administration has a behavioral analysis security program known as SPOT -- Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques -- its ineffectiveness still leaves U.S. aviation security searching for terrorists' tools -- not terrorists.

El Al's behavioral detection program identified shoe bomb terrorist Richard Reid as a potential threat on an El Al flight made months before his December 2001 failed attack on American Airlines.

The Israeli aviation security model has been so successful that in the last 50 years, no terrorist has successfully hijacked or bombed an Israeli aircraft or a foreign aircraft departing from Israel.

The 1986 Hindawi incident reveals how the Israeli security method trains personnel to weigh a range of factors so, even when telltale behavior isn't visible -- i.e., a bomb planted on an unwitting passenger -- detection is still possible.

Nezar Hindawi, a Jordanian terrorist working for the Syrian government, took Anne-Marie Murphy -- an Irish housemaid -- as a lover. She became pregnant; he disappeared. Five months later, he suddenly reappeared, professing his love and desire to marry her. He told her to catch the next El Al flight to Tel Aviv, where his parents eagerly awaited her arrival.

When a surprised but pleased Murphy said she needed to pack, Hindawi handed her a small bag for the trip, explaining he would follow on the next flight but she needed to depart quickly for hers.

Murphy raced off to London's Heathrow airport. Her single carry-on bag was X-rayed and she was motioned on to El Al. (Despite domestic security, El Al always performs its own.) There, Murphy was asked questions for which her answers immediately raised concerns.

Despite an uneventful X-ray of her carry-on bag, it was opened and a secret pocket discovered. Cut open, it held 3.3 pounds of the plastic explosive Semtex but no detonator.

Re-examining the bag's contents, a small handheld calculator was found, an altimeter detonator hidden inside to effect a sympathetic detonation of the Semtex.

Murphy's naivete could have cost 375 lives had it not been for alert security. Questions put to her included: Where she was going (responding, "To visit the Holy Land") and where she would stay (responding, "Hilton hotel"). Trained to focus on inconsistencies, security couldn't resolve, among other things, why a 5-month pregnant women would travel to Israel on vacation with a single carry-on bag and on a non-existent hotel she identified.

Such security's success lies in interacting with all passengers -- asking pertinent questions -- to identify irresolvable issues and whether a passenger poses a threat. It is a process fine-tuned over the years, easily integrated into current international and domestic aviation security systems. It requires empowering trained employees to make decisions based not solely on automatic government regulations but individual passenger assessments.

TSA's SPOT program, in force for five years, was recently criticized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General for lacking an objective and strategic plan. A billion dollars spent to date to train 5 percent of TSA's workforce has yet to "ensure that passengers are screened objectively or show that SPOT is cost effective or worthy of expansion."

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., has put SPOT on the spot, seeking to prevent the waste of any more tax dollars for failing to improve aviation security.

TSA has made some smart moves. It added to its course roster threat-oriented training focusing on security questioning and passenger threat assessment. This approach is important because it encourages decision-making based on a professional evaluation of the behavior, the story and the situation, regardless of the risk population to which the passenger belongs (old, young, frequent traveler or first-time traveler).

"Chameleon Associates (which provides this training) represents the kind of approach and methods TSA, once created, should have immediately implemented," says Arik Arad, a leading aviation security specialist who consults with government and private aviation stakeholders.

If only wielded effectively, SPOT could be "spot on" in improving aviation security.

Right now, TSA appears lost in a process not fully understood, evidenced by claims of racial profiling. If performed correctly, SPOT isn't profiling suspects by race but conducting threat categorization to identify potential terrorists.

SPOT is a methodology focusing on all passengers -- from point of airport roadside curb entry all the way to the boarding gate. Through interaction and security-related questions, passengers are identified for further screening to ensure a threat posed is dealt with effectively and respectfully -- ensuring unresolved passenger issues don't result in "criminal" treatment. Thus, anyone harboring ill intent is effectively dealt with before boarding the plane.

An effective SPOT program incorporates two security elements, predictive screening and threat categorization identification, into the passenger check-in process -- minimizing intrusive and timely screening procedures and increasing interaction with each and every passenger. Understanding and correctly identifying behavioral concerns is key to successful and efficient aviation security. TSA's Friday announcement of the threat posed by new "underwear bomber" technology makes this particularly urgent.

There is a danger in eliminating the SPOT program, which actually only requires fine-tuning, to make it more effective. TSA may want to talk to behavioral "duty experts" about doing so.

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(A retired U.S. Marine, Lt. Col. James Zumwalt served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He has written "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran -- The Clock is Ticking.")

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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