Counterterrorism: Training Transportation Screeners

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Sgt. Peter DiDomenica of the Massachusetts State Police tells Scott Simon how he goes about training airport and mass transit security screeners to recognize potential terrorists. It's the first of a series on efforts to fight terrorism.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a fight club too tough for Brad Pitt to join. Nunchucks, anyone?

But first, millions of people are on the move every day in cities across this country. Who should be stopped on suspicion as a potential terrorist? Who should be searched? Who should be questioned? Security personnel in airports, train stations and bus terminals across the country must answer these questions on a daily basis, while keeping in mind the constitutional protections that every American is guaranteed. We're going to have a series of conversations about counterterrorism measures and civil liberties over these next weeks. We're beginning with Sergeant Peter DiDomenica of the Massachusetts State Police. Sergeant DiDomenica trains airport and mass transit security screeners. He joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

Thanks very much for being with us, Sergeant.

Sergeant PETER DIDOMENICA (Massachusetts State Police): Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: And without giving away anything truly important, I suppose, what do you train your screeners to look for?

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, first of all, an individual who is on some type of a mission would tend to feel some stress when they go through a screening process or when they're being evaluated, going through screening or when they're in the presence of a law enforcement official. And that stress is not due to the person feeling guilty about what they're doing; they believe very intently about what they're doing. There's a stress created because of a fear of failure, a fear of discovery. And that stress will come out in any number of ways. It could come out in body language. It can come out in response to some simple questions. It could some out in inconsistencies in the way that the person's dressed. It can come out in types of interactions with other passengers or other patrons at that facility.

SIMON: I'm sure you've considered this possibility before. What if they're just nervous because they think the screening process might make them miss the flight, which will make them miss the sales meeting?

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, it's a two-step process. We're looking for individuals that appear to be under some measure of stress. If the level is high enough, that person will be engaged by a law enforcement official. There's a follow-up--very brief, non-threatening--interview with the law enforcement official, and at that stage the attempt is made to determine: Is this some innocent person that is, as the example you gave, feeling some stress because they're late for a meeting or they have a fear of flying or they may be, you know, physically ill? There's any number of reasons why a person may display some of the things we're looking for, and we use that very brief interview as a way of screening the behaviors we saw earlier.

SIMON: Do your screeners start with any particular assumptions?

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, number one, we do not target people based on apparent race or ethnicity. We feel that the use of race--well, it's illegal to begin with, but we also strongly believe that it's counterproductive, it wastes valuable resources and it also causes ill will with the particular community that is a victim of the racial or ethnic profiling.

SIMON: May I--I feel the need to interrupt...

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Sure.

SIMON: ...with a little question, if I could, Sergeant, because you know there are voices publicly that are saying when you see suspect after suspect and people have actually been convicted of crimes and see their pictures, they in fact--so many of them--boy, let me say this carefully, but so many of them do seem to be young Muslim males, and that a security system that doesn't recognize that reality is frittering a lot of valuable time and resources by looking at other people.

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, the Muslim countries expand from North Africa through what is the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia through Southeast Asia. In fact, the great majority of people of Muslim faith reside in Southeast Asia, so I don't think it's really possible to identify what someone may look like that's of that faith. Now you mentioned age and gender.

SIMON: Yeah.

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, even with the gender--you know, there was a pattern developing in the bombings in Israel and Chechnya where frequently female suicide bombers were used. I think with the age, that does help. It seems to be confined to people from their late teens through their 20s and possibly into their 30s.

SIMON: Would you welcome the power to screen more intrusively, if I might put it that way? Are there things that in the best of all possible worlds, in your world, at any rate, you would like to be able to do that you now can't?

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, there's technology now that's used for detecting explosive devices. There are scanners that actually through a puff of air can detect the residual chemicals of a possible explosive. There are body scanning devices that raise some privacy concerns that look right through you, including internal body cavities. There is more than can be done, and I don't think there's the patience or the resources to use all that type of technology for the hundreds of millions of passengers that come through the airport. It's great technology, and I'd like to see it applied to the passengers that are high-risk, and I think through the system we've devised, we can identify those high-risk passengers and subject them to maybe some of this more intrusive type of screening process.

SIMON: Is--does Logan, may I ask, feel particularly under scrutiny because of its history in September 11th?

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Well, of course. I mean, we--two of the planes in the worst single act of terrorism in the history of the world, I believe, were launched from that airport. You know, we feel that intensely. Now I only came there after 9/11, and it's had a profound effect on me, and I'm not saying that that profound effect is due to a feeling of guilt or that something was done wrong. It's just that when you're that close to a tragedy that large, it has a very profound effect on individuals, and I think it's our obligation to turn that into something positive and try to create a system that's going to protect the American public as best as possible.

SIMON: Sergeant Peter DiDomenica of the Massachusetts State Police, thanks very much.

Sgt. DIDOMENICA: Thank you.

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