TSA expands testing of 'chat-down' program

The Transportation Security Administration added a second airport to its behavior-detection interview program, dubbed "chat downs" by critics.

TSA tested the program this summer at Boston's Logan Airport, interviewing travelers as a means of assessing suspicious behavior by their reactions to certain questions.

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The agency confirmed to The Hill Monday it was extending the program to Detroit's Metro International Airport.

The information gathered in interviews will be used as the basis of a known-traveler program that 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.

TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said the program would improve passenger safety.

“TSA has long recognized the value of a layered, threat-based approach to transportation security and the need to focus more of our resources on people who potentially pose a threat to aviation safety, in addition to the system’s current focus on high-risk items," he said in a written statement. "We will evaluate the impact on security, screening operations and passenger throughput, and determine how to proceed with this program.”

Democrats in Congress have sometimes defended TSA from attacks by House Republicans, but they have expressed reservations about the behavior-detection programs.

"Although the (behavior detection observers) may not have interviewed a sufficient number of passengers to yield a statistically significant result … 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," the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said in a statement this summer. 

TSA officials said the interviews at the Detroit airport would be limited initially to passengers flying from the airport's Delta Airlines terminal. 

The expansion was first reported Monday by Bloomberg News.