Democrats deride new TSA behavior-detection program as 'chat downs'

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee dubbed a new Transportation Security Administration behavior-detection program set to begin Monday as "chat downs."

The lawmakers renewed their criticism of the TSA tactic, drawing an obvious comparison to the agency's controversial pat-downs and hand searches.

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The TSA was expected to begin testing the program for 60 days at Boston's Logan Airport. Under the proposal, travelers will be interviewed to assess suspicious behavior by their reactions to certain questions.

The information would then be used as the basis of a known-traveler program which advocates say could reduce wait times at airport security checkpoints for frequent fliers because every passenger would not have to be checked exactly the same way.

But Democrats on the committee, which oversees the TSA, say they have concerns about the program. Among them is how representative the information gathered during the pilot program in Boston will be.

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"It is my understanding that the pilot program will begin on August 15, 2011 and will end on or about October 15, 2011," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote in a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole. "Although the (behavior detection observers) may not have interviewed a sufficient number of passengers to yield a statistically significant result during this 60 day period, TSA representatives indicated during the briefing that the agency plans on using the results of the pilot to determine whether the 'assessor' program should be expanded."

In a message posted on his Twitter stream Monday, Thompson pointed to the letter, saying "TSA 'chat downs' program will begin today @ Boston Logan - see our concerns here."

Pistole has said a "known-traveler" program would improve TSA's ability to get passengers quickly to their flights.

"These improvements will enable our officers to focus their efforts on higher-risk areas," Pistole said on a conference call with aviation officials last month when the program was announced. "Enhancing identity-based screening is another common-sense step in the right direction as we continue to strengthen overall security, and improve the passenger experience whenever possible."

Read the full letter to Pistole here.