Security laboratory; TSA leader values Memphis as air-safety test site

If not for his jacket with "TSA federal executive" printed on the back, Kip Hawley would have blended perfectly in the crowd Thursday at Memphis International Airport.

The low profile may be by design for the person in charge of transportation security in post-Sept. 11 America, where the idea notably is invisible omnipresence.

"We're trying some new things here we haven't tried other places," he said, milling among the agents checking bags, paying particular attention to the ones with CIA-like ear pieces, inconspicuously drumming up conversation in the ranks.

"Memphis has a good population for security tests," he said, ticking off its mix of tourists and business travelers, passenger age range and diversity. "Besides, in the Mid-South, security tests work well because the people are polite and seem to enjoy the attention."

While the programs eventually will be tried in less genteel parts of the country, seemingly even TSA agents can use a break on the front end.

What they are doing in Memphis is a first anywhere, chatting people up in the line with tiny radios in their ears, allowing TSA behavioral specialists to inconspicuously alert the eyes and ears of the TSA without tipping off the whole airport.

"We're trying different theories of how to engage the passenger so we can get a better read on what's going on," said Hawley, head of TSA since 2005.

In that time, he has championed the cause of behavior detection officers - BDOs in the TSA's parlance - or specially trained agents who watch passengers from the time they enter the airport to the time they board their planes, noticing nervous tics, perhaps, and people who seem bent on surveying the security setup, but also people who may have mental health issues exacerbated by the tension of dealing with uniformed officers and time pressures of flying.

By fanning security measures away from the congestion of the checkpoint, TSA gets a smoother process and more relaxed client, he said.

"You only see a bomb one time, and that is the day they are going to use it," Hawley said. "Those are not good odds."

By stepping up the offensive, he said, and moving the security out, "you can pick up the risks a whole lot better."

Late last summer, TSA took over the task of checking passenger travel documents, saying it wanted to be on the alert at curbside, if possible, to people traveling with fake or mismatched IDs.

The job had been done by airport contract workers.

"We opened it up to TSA in August," Hawley said. "Memphis was one of the first to run with it."

And the scatter-shot X-rays that generated controversy when introduced in Phoenix this fall are on their way here too, although Hawley doesn't know exactly when.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls X-rays a "virtual strip search" for the vivid anatomical images they can create.

Hawley dismisses the rancor, saying the body images are blurred to the point that only the weapon or explosive is visible.

"They are read in a remote location, never by the person in the check line taking the X-ray," he said.

TSA says 75 percent of passengers selected in Phoenix for secondary searches choose the X-ray over a pat-down search, "which really is invasive," he said.

-Jane Roberts: 529-2512