Debating Behavior Profiling For Airport Security Most airline passengers expect to go through a body scan or pat-down, but they may find themselves inspected based on their actions. Human interactions with passengers, rather than technology, may help the TSA find potential threats. But opponents argue behavior profiling violates civil liberties.
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Debating Behavior Profiling For Airport Security

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Debating Behavior Profiling For Airport Security

Debating Behavior Profiling For Airport Security

Debating Behavior Profiling For Airport Security

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Most airline passengers expect to go through a body scan or pat-down, but they may find themselves inspected based on their actions. Human interactions with passengers, rather than technology, may help the TSA find potential threats. But opponents argue behavior profiling violates civil liberties.


Carl Maccario, program manager, TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program
Amb. Thomas MacNamara, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia
Mike German, policy counsel on national security, immigration and privacy, ACLU


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Anyone who flies knows about pat-downs, metal detectors, body scanners, sniffer dogs, but you may not have noticed behavior detection officers. Their job description: Perform passive observation and engage in voluntary encounters with the public to determine whether individuals may be involved in harmful activities against transportation systems.

This is profiling, not based on ethnicity, age or gender. Most experts agree that doesn't work. And about 3,000 security officers have been trained to identify potential threats simply by watching how passengers behave.

So frequent flyers, we want to hear from you today. What type of screening do you think is most effective? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, And you can also join the conversation by going to our website. That's at Then just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Ask Amy on how we handle the awkward in-law, ex or cousin who still expects a holiday invitation. You can email your story about that now too. Again, the address is

But first, behavior profiling. Carl Maccario is the program manager for the Transportation Security Administration's Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques Program, and he joins us by phone from Logan Airport in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. CARL MACCARIO (Transportation Security Administration): Nice to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And merry Christmas to you.

Mr. MACCARIO: The same to you.

CONAN: And these officers are charged with performing passive observation. What does that mean, exactly?

Mr. MACCARIO: Well, what the behavior detection officers do is they're out in the checkpoint area, watching the passengers as they transit the checkpoint. They're also out there engaging the passengers in conversation as they transit through the line and through the checkpoint, in casual conversation.

So they're doing behavior observation and interacting with the passengers on a casual level, greeting them and, you know, asking them where they might be headed today and that type of thing.

CONAN: Are they in uniform, or are they plainclothes?

Mr. MACCARIO: No, they're in uniform. They're in uniform out in front of the checkpoint, and they're dressed like just the regular TSA(ph) workforce.

CONAN: And when you say, you know, conversation - where are you going today, that sort of thing?

Mr. MACCARIO: Well, yeah, it's just, you know, how was your ride into the airport, you know, where are you headed today, that type of thing. It's not - it's just very casual as the people come in and they queue up to go through the checkpoint.

CONAN: We, the behavior detection officers, while they're having that casual conversation and walking the line and talking to people, they're looking for very specific behavior cues that they're taught in their training and looking for reactions from the passengers as they walk the line and as people begin to face the scrutiny of the screening process.

And the theory behind that really is that it's almost immaterial what your answers are to the behavior detection officer. It's how you react to that encounter with the security officer. And you know, without getting into specific behavior cues, we have trained our behavior detection officers to look for what we call fear of discovery indicators, people who may be hiding some type of (unintelligible) or the intent to do harm to the aircraft, the airport or the passengers.

So - and we built in a threshold to that program in that training. So that's really what they're doing.

CONAN: And again, obviously for obvious reasons, you can't tell us precisely the behaviors they're looking for. but I who know nothing about what you're trained to look for, if somebody immediate puts their hand in their pocket to cover something when they're approached by somebody in uniform, you might want to know what's in the pocket.

Mr. MACCARIO: That's true, but we also - one of the things that TSA is really proud of with this program is that we've built in - well, we have two million people, you know, transiting airports a day. We built in a threshold to the screening process, to the behavior detection process, to account for those who have a fear of flying, those that may get anxious waiting in line, things like that, that are not indicators that somebody may fear being discovered.

CONAN: They're just afraid of not making their flight, yeah.

Mr. MACCARIO: So those - but certainly there are - let me just put it this way. The TSA has been running checkpoints now for nine years, and I think we have a pretty good handle on what the demeanor is of passengers as they transit the checkpoint.

So in a nutshell, we're looking for behaviors that may be indicative of fear of discovery and also that deviate from that norm, and if they do reach a level where we're concerned, we give those people additional screening, and if during that screening process their behavior becomes more suspicious, then we may involve law enforcement or ask the person to undergo additional screening and maybe the questioning to a law enforcement officer. That's really it.

CONAN: And can you tell us: Has this behavioral profiling actually ever detected somebody trying to get something through a screening checkpoint?

Mr. MACCARIO: It has. It has over the five years now that we've been running the program, and that includes its pilot stage. We've caught everything under the sun - you know, criminals, fugitives, drug smugglers, money couriers, a lot of illegal activity.

We unfortunately don't know how many terrorists we've deterred by having this additional layer of security out in front of the checkpoint, because as you know, it's difficult to measure a deterrent.

CONAN: According to one report, undercover TSA agents testing security at an airport in Newark in 2006 found that TSA screeners failed to detect concealed bombs and guns in 20 out of 22 instances, this all just one day.

So obviously, relying just on technology has some major flaws.

Mr. MACCARIO: And I agree, and I think, you know, a credit to TSA was the program originally grew out of the belief that there has to be a fine balance between the human element and technology. And you really can't weigh too heavy on one and not the other.

And that's why we looked at you know, this is a wonderful complement to the current screening structure because the checkpoint looks for the means of attack. The BDO program, Behavior Detection Program, actually looks at the person.

So as one of my Israeli instructors used to say: The bags don't talk, people do. So you know, you want to look at both the human element and those who may have possible intent and the fact that you have the checkpoint, which is going to look for the means of attack.

CONAN: And you mentioned one of your Israeli colleagues. Israeli security is famous for its rigor, and as you know, there is a great deal, much more aggressive questioning involved in their screening techniques than anything the TSA does, and much less reliance on technology.

Mr. MACCARIO: Right. That's very true. And I - well, there are a lot of - there's a lot information, especially recently, that's been out, you know, supposedly describing the Israeli system. And unfortunately a lot of it's erroneous.

You know, a lot of people think that everyone travelling through Ben Gurion, and I've been over there, everybody's subjected to a 15, 20 minute interview. It's not the case.

Everyone throws around the Israeli system, you know, wording, and really a lot of people don't understand what it is, and it's a system where people are categorized as low-risk and high-risk passengers. And based on those categorizations, they apply the appropriate security.

So there are a lot of things the Israelis do now that we could do here, and there are some things which we wouldn't be able to do.

CONAN: Some of the categories that they would include as high-risk would include ethnic categories, for example.

Mr. MACCARIO: In their system that's possible, correct.

CONAN: So that would be one thing that would be simply illegal in the United States.

Mr. MACCARIO: Right, and we would - that's very true, and we wouldn't do that. We don't do that. And as a matter of fact, we're kind of proud of our Behavior Detection Program because we feel it's really an antidote to racial profiling because we don't teach it, we don't believe in it, and in our training we specifically tell students that if you're going to be silly enough to racially profile, the real threat is going to walk right past you.

It's ineffective as a security tool. The demographics in this country, as you know, are pretty wide and varied. And it doesn't make any sense, never mind the fact that it's illegal. There's just no logic to it when you're trying to use it as a security tool.

And we've all seen that from the races and ethnicities of people that have tried to attack this country. There is no face of terrorism. It can be everybody.

CONAN: Yet there are - one of the complaints you always here is: Why are resources devoted to extra screening for an 89-year-old grandmother in a walker or an eight-year-old girl?

Mr. MACCARIO: Right. That - there are criticisms of that, but there's also the realization where we've seen around the world that, especially in other countries, where people who are either naive passengers that are being used unknowingly to transport explosives - I keep thinking back to the Ann-Marie Murphy case back in the '80s, where she carried a present for her husband that was already wrapped and was getting on an El-Al flight to bring it supposedly home for the holidays, had no idea what was in it, and then when she was asked, she said I don't know, When they opened it up, it was an IED.

So we've seen, unfortunately, little kids being used in terrorist attacks, elderly people, people that are mentally challenged being used as, you know, carriers of explosives unwittingly and unknowingly, and it's unfortunate.

CONAN: Would it be an improvement if you had background information, if people, the airlines, provide you lists of everybody who's flying, if you did - got on your computers and did background checks on everybody who was flying that day?

Mr. MACCARIO: You can - and I think that's what you'll see as the security evolves, especially with the TSA. And you know, the good news is that none of this is frozen in time. So we're always looking to improve our security layers, and I think you'll see that down the road, that happen, and we'll have a more intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to screening, where we can focus on passengers that could be potentially high-risk versus low-risk passengers - as you cited, the 89-year-old grandmother or the 90-year-old World War II vet with medals on his hat and served his country, where it'll be more appropriate screening for those that may be higher-risk passengers.

CONAN: Why isn't that done today?

Mr. MACCARIO: I think because it's been a slow evolution to try to find the right fit for screening and trying to find the right balance between technology and the human element.

I think as you see time goes on - we've seen it after Thanksgiving. A lot of people are asking why, you know, Congress and some of the people in the aviation business, you know, why aren't we using a little more of the human element?

I think you'll see that. And when you do that, combined with intelligence, you're able to make a better decision on whether or not somebody needs to go through a full screening, so to speak, and maybe less scrutiny and a lower level of screening because they're not, simply not a threat.

I mean TSA takes, you know, hundreds of thousands of pocket knives and things every year from passengers who never had any intention of using them. They might have left them in their bag or forgot they had them. So you know, it's going to come down to having a fine balance between the human element and background information and talking with passengers to help determine whether or not they should get, you know, the body scan, you know, explosion trace detection screening...

CONAN: Carl Maccario, I'm afraid we're out of time. But we wish you a very successful holiday season, and good luck to you.

When we come back, we'll be talking more about this. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

If you're flying over the holidays, you probably expect to go through a body scanner or a metal detector, maybe get a pat-down. You may also find yourself inspected based on your actions. It's called behavior profiling.

We're looking at whether it works and whether it's legal, whether it goes far enough. If you travel often, we want to hear from you. Frequent flyers, what type of screening do you think most effective? 800-989-8255. Email You can join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Ambassador Thomas McNamara, formerly ambassador to Colombia under President Reagan, special assistant to the president for national security affairs under President H. W. Bush, and nice to have you with us.

Mr. THOMAS McNAMARA (Former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia): Pleased to be here.

CONAN: And you are among those who think that the present screening does not go far enough.

Mr. McNAMARA: Not that it doesn't go far enough. It's just not the right type of screening. It relies excessively on technology and doesn't use other techniques. It's very expensive. And the outcome is good, but the money spent, we should have a great outcome. We're far in excess of what we ought to be doing in certain areas, and we're simply not doing other things.

CONAN: You are among those who say we need to - you're searching for a needle in a haystack, you need to make the haystack smaller.

Mr. McNAMARA: Correct, and the two ways to make that - many ways to make that haystack smaller. Two very important ways, which can be done relatively simply - you mentioned one of them, and that is frequent flyers.

Frequent flyers go through that procedure hundreds of millions of times a year, the same individuals time and time again. They could be given what are called secure traveler, it has various names, trusted traveler cards, which in effect would be almost a passport.

CONAN: And these would be voluntary.

Mr. McNAMARA: It would be voluntary, and they would be put out jointly by the airlines, the airports and the government, a supervised program nationally.

Another thing that we could do - and that would reduce by literally hundreds of millions the number of people who would have to go every time through those checkout procedures.

CONAN: There would be random searches, but...

Mr. McNAMARA: There would still be random searches, and some of them would have to go through the thing randomly, which is another thing. You can reduce by saying a random number would go through.

Another thing that we don't do, we did in a pre-computer age do something like it, but there is a way in which we can check people out of the United States the same way we check them in. It wouldn't be TSA. It would be immigration officials.

Everybody who comes into the United States goes through immigration, hands in their passport, they're asked questions, they're inquired about what they're going to be doing, where they're going. They put down addresses and phone numbers, et cetera, as to where they're going, particularly non-citizens.

We don't check people out. We make them stand on line for a half-hour or an hour to go through a machine that's going to scan them. Why not spend that half-hour checking them out? Then you would have - you would know who the overstays on their visas are, you'd know who was not doing what they said they were doing when they come into the country in the checkout procedure, and now there's some behavioral checking you could do that has nothing to do with what they're doing at the airport but rather what they've been doing during their stay in the U.S.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Mike German, policy counsel on national security, immigration and privacy at the ACLU, served for 16 years as a special agent with the FBI, and nice to have you with us here in Studio 3A. Merry Christmas to you.

Mr. MIKE GERMAN (Policy Counsel on National Security, Immigration and Privacy, ACLU): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And are concerns raised about the legality of any of these innovations as they come online?

Mr. GERMAN: Certainly. I mean, what we want to make sure is that whatever program is being implemented is being implemented in a way that doesn't have a disparate impact on particular groups, you know, particular...

CONAN: And when you hear the word profiling, I assume a red flag goes up.

Mr. GERMAN: Exactly, and you know, particularly things like behavioral profiling. You know, it sounds good. I mean, obviously we want a behavior-based approach. We want it to be based on individual suspicion created about particular people because of things they've done, not the way they look, not the clothes they wear.

But when the behaviors are described in ways that are sort of ubiquitous or generalized so that anybody could engage in that - you know, a person is furtive, a person is, you know, doesn't make eye contact, you know, these sort of nebulous sort of behaviors aren't necessarily really indicative of anything and are so ubiquitous that it would give the officer the opportunity to pick people not because he's really suspicious about anything they did but because he's suspicious of the way they look or the religious garb that they're wearing or some other reason.

CONAN: And just to go back on a point we mentioned with Carl Maccario of the TSA, some of the techniques Israeli screeners use, for example, do use - they give more attention to Arab passengers than to non-Arab passengers, and that would not fly in this country.

Mr. GERMAN: Certainly a lot of people say that. I agree with what Mr. Maccario said, that there is a lot out there sort of in the public about what the Israeli method is, and I'm not sure that any of them are necessarily correct.

You know, I know that Rafi Ron, who was the head of the Ben Gurion Airport security, is very adamantly opposed to any kind of racial profiling, and I was very pleased to hear Mr. Maccario also say that he acknowledged the racial profiling as ineffective and that they train against that.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email Nick(ph) is with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

NICK (Caller): Hey, thank you so much for having me on. I was just going to mention, I did agree with the fact, the ID for frequent flyers would be a nice idea. I particularly think about the pilots and those type of people, and people (unintelligible) like he said, voluntarily.

The thing I wanted to mention, I wanted to congratulate TSA on using a non-traditional method. I was curious: When they say screening people or when they say talking to people, do they do it casually, as in just a friendly other passenger, or is it a kind of specific questioning?

And then the other comment I just wanted to make was: I'm okay with however much it takes to make sure that the plane that I'm in stays in the air until it's supposed to come down.

I always get frustrated with other passengers that also tie up the line just complaining about, oh, they've got to take their shoes off. We all know it's the deal, and if we could just all get together a little better on that.

CONAN: Well, he did say that the people talking with passengers are in uniform. So whether - how casual it is or not, it's somebody in uniform and that's an authority figure. So I guess that - that represents a certain degree of officialdom right there.

But just specifically, Mike German, would that raise any flags for you?

Mr. GERMAN: Well, you know, I mean, one of the things, whenever you're looking at any of these programs, the first question should be: Is this effective? And unfortunately a Government Accountability Office study has just came out that said that the Behavioral Detection Program is not effective and has significant problems, including the fact that it's never been scientifically validated, these behavioral - there's no peer-reviewed scientific study that validates behavioral detection as used by the TSA.

And out of 150,000 secondary referrals, there were only 1,100 arrests. And 39 percent of those were illegal aliens. Nineteen percent had outstanding warrants, and 12 percent were drugs. Zero terrorists or anybody intending to harm an aircraft.

And in fact, one of the things they did that was really amazing is they went back to people who had later been convicted of terrorism offenses to determine whether they had been through any of the airports where these behavior detection officers were and found that 16 actual terrorists went through eight of these airports 23 times without being detected.

So you know, as Nick said there, you know, what's important is whether these techniques actually work, and that's really the problem, is that the TSA isn't doing enough to test these programs before they're implemented at huge cost. I mean, this is a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

CONAN: And Ambassador McNamara mentioned that as well. But one of the advantages of the technology approach, the screening machines, is that it goes through everybody. It's - it corrects for the legality problem and the profiling problem. Everybody goes through it.

Mr. GERMAN: So everyone is violated.

Mr. McNAMARA: No, I don't agree that that's - you don't need to do everyone, and it is foolish and expensive, and it is an invasion of privacy to subject everyone to this.

If you could prove that doing it to everybody had a substantial security benefit, as opposed to what I would call a more logical, layered approach - we all know - I've spent my entire career in security. Security is best when it's layered - that is to say, when you don't do one thing all the time to everyone, or you don't follow the same procedures all the time.

Surprise is a great factor in discovering whether somebody is or is not engaged in criminal activity, because when the criminal is surprised, he's thrown off-balance and he does things and says things that allow you to detect the criminal activity underway much better.

We are much too dependent upon technology, and as we all know, it's -those of us who pay attention to this closely - it's relatively unproven. Behavioral techniques can be beneficial, but they have to be proven. The Israeli method proves...

CONAN: We hear all this criticism. Nine-plus years after 9/11...

Mr. McNAMARA: That's right.

CONAN: ...there's not been a successful aviation attack in this country.

Mr. McNAMARA: That's what I said. I said we're doing a good job, but the money we're spending, we ought to be doing a great job. By the way, let's note that the behavioral or, as he put it, behavior detection going on at Logan is in a pilot program. We're nine - we're in our 10th year after 9/11 and we're still in a pilot program. And he talks about a slow evolution.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on this. Nora, Nora with us from Minneapolis.

NORA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, go ahead, please.

NORA: Well, my question was kind of already answered. But I still feel like there might have been - in my own personal situation in which I was profiled flying here in Minneapolis, that there was not only the behavior analyst talking to me casually but that it either sparked fire in one of the passengers that was nearby and heard it...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

NORA: ...or the passenger nearby was a undercover in line who also started asking me a lot of questions.

CONAN: And what happened, Nora?

NORA: Well, they did come up to us, and it was very - me and my husband, who was not flying. He was just watching me, making sure I got through security. I mean, we are Muslim and we do wear, I would guess, stereotypical Muslim garb. And they came up to us very casually and just - it sounded like they were just making conversation. I just thought it was someone at the security checkpoint. I thought it was like a Delta worker. I didn't know it was with TSA (unintelligible).

And then after that, the lady that was next to me flying started asking me a lot of really strange questions. And I was like, okay, this is really strange. And then after I got through, I guess from what they had asked us, they must have thought that something was still suspicious. And then they came up to us or me with a badge and said we need to ask you more questions after I've gotten through security.

So I don't know. I have mixed feelings. But I guess a lot of this information I didn't even understand until now when I hear your guys radio show right now. But...

CONAN: And...

NORA: ...I don't know that it's as random or as casual as they may think it is.

CONAN: And, Mike German, that's...

NORA: And now that you have it broadcasted, everyone knows, you know?

CONAN: Well, Mike German, you're going to hear this complain a lot.

Mr. GERMAN: Sure. And we do. And, you know, and a number of different religious groups where they do have distinctive religious garb. You know, we work with a number of Sikh groups who wear a turban. And, you know, in some airports they are selected for secondary screening 100% of the time. So it's clear that there is still some profiling going on and there isn't enough transparency in any of these programs for the public to really assess whether they work.

And I totally agree with Ambassador McNamara that subjecting everybody to invasive screenings isn't the answer. It's getting smart about it, using intelligence, you know, rather than trying to treat everybody as a suspect until they prove otherwise. Focus on people you already know are involved in illegal activity.

CONAN: Nora, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Mike German, you just heard, formerly of the FBI, now with the ACLU, and also Thomas McNamara, a former U.S. ambassador and author of the op-ed, "To Find the Needles, Reduce the Haystacks," published in the Los Angeles Times.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Mike, and Mike is with us from Novi in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MIKE: I generally find myself annoyed that people are so up in arms about these extra layers of security. I mean, only a year ago, I'm - fly to Detroit, which is where our last, you know, attempt came through. And I personally don't find that that invasive.

CONAN: So you don't - do you get flagged a lot? Do you get searched?

MIKE: I fly about three times a month. And a couple of years ago, I think there was some sort of stipulation where if you got your plane tickets a few days before your flight, you'd actually get the quadruple stamp. So I used to get those quite a bit. Probably every time I flew, almost.

CONAN: So - and this doesn't bother you at all?

MIKE: No. I think that patience is certainly a virtue. And, you know, most of the people that do gripe, I feel, aren't even the frequent flyers. I mean, I talk to a lot of frequent flyers and they're, I think, generally okay with it.

CONAN: Would you, if it were available, apply for one of those trusted flyer cards that Ambassador McNamara was talking about, voluntarily agree to a background check and, while you'd be going through a much quicker line most of time, occasional random checks?

MIKE: They have that NEXUS program, I believe, for - I fly a lot to Canada. There's that program. But, apparently, it's very difficult to obtain that card. I don't really know for sure. But, yeah, I will definitely be in favor of that, as with my older brother. He also flies very frequently.

CONAN: All right. Mike, thanks very much for the call and good travel to you.

MIKE: All right. There's one anecdote I love about security when (unintelligible) I had a knife with me and I got flagged at two different airports and both of the people - TSA agents just gave up and I found it within probably 30 seconds.

CONAN: You had a knife with you and it got through with the metal detector?

MIKE: It was in my bag. And when it goes through the X-ray, it gets flagged in red. And it happened in two different airports the same day and I've - they both just gave up, basically.

CONAN: And so it flew with you and had you had evil intent that you might have done something wrong.

MIKE: Yeah, I mean, it was probably a good three-inch blade on there. I mean, that's a decent size knife.

CONAN: All right, Mike. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And that goes, Ambassador McNamara, to the point that a lot of people make that, yes, there has not been a successful airport attack in the last nine-plus years, but maybe that more due to the errors committed by the attackers and mistakes that they have made rather than vigilance on our side. A lot of the attacks foiled by passengers on planes.

Mr. McNAMARA: Yes. And also we've done other things totally unrelated to air travel that have weakened the terrorist networks - have weakened their capability to mount such attacks. Mounting a 9/11 attack was an extraordinarily complex operation. Didn't cost all that much money, but it took many, many months and it took close coordination. Those types of attacks are more difficult for the - because of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation within the United States and what our allies and partners overseas are doing.

Of all of the, if you will, true terrorist that have been captured, arrested and jailed, about 95 percent of them have happened outside the United States by people cooperating with the United States. So 95 percent of the terrorists that we know have been jailed have been jailed because of a cooperative program that has nothing to do with the air travel.

CONAN: And some people are picking things they believe are softer targets, a subway system or things like that.

Mr. McNAMARA: That's also true.

CONAN: But anyway, thanks to you both. We appreciate your time today. You just heard Ambassador Thomas McNamara, served as U.S. ambassador to Columbia under President Reagan, now an adjunct professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University. There's a link to his op-ed at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Also with us, Mike German. He is policy counsel on national security, immigration and privacy at the ACLU. We thank them both very much for their time today and wish them both a merry Christmas.

Coming up, yeah, 'tis the season. Well, you know, that awkward in-law, is he coming for dinner? Ask Amy joins us. Stay with us.

It's NPR News.

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