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TSA's 'chatdown' program is probed after racial profiling complaints

| Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, 8:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is investigating complaints from airport security officers that the “chat-down” program at Boston's Logan airport has become a magnet for racial profiling.

The Transportation Security Administration said on Monday that the department's inspector general will examine the complaints that Middle Easterners, Hispanics and blacks have been targeted in the program. The New York Times reported Sunday that 32 TSA officers at Logan made the complaints.

The chat-down program at Boston and Detroit airports is at the fore of TSA's effort to focus security on the riskiest passengers, rather than treating all travelers the same.

Under the year-old program, officers pose casual questions to all passengers before they screen their carry-on bags to look for deception or hostility that could lead to more interrogation.

The Times reported that officers say their co-workers were targeting minorities, thinking that the stops would lead to the discovery of drugs, outstanding arrest warrants and immigration problems in response to pressure from managers.

“If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity,” the TSA said in a statement. “Profiling is not only discriminatory, but it is also an ineffective way to identify someone intent on doing harm.” Chat-downs, as opposed to physical pat-downs of passengers, grew from TSA's behavioral-detection program, which fields 3,000 officers to look for suspicious people at airports nationwide.

Chat-down questions — Are you traveling alone? Where did you stay when you were here? — may seem innocuous, but the TSA said its goal is to detect behavior such as lack of eye contact or fidgeting that could signal a possible terrorist or criminal. If a passenger refuses to answer the questions, TSA will search their carry-on bags.

The TSA says its programs are designed to comply with civil-rights policies of the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The agency says officers “are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening that are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”

Critics in Congress such as Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the Transportation Committee, have been skeptical that security officers can be trained to spot such subtle behavior, however, and some have urged an end to the program.

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