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Can Next Generation of Security Screeners Really Measure Anxiety Level?

This is a rush transcript from "America's Election HQ," September 19, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, HOST: Folks, if you've been to the airport lately, you know that they have all different kinds of screening machines to detect dangerous subject at these days. Now, they have come up with one that detects dangerous people.

Really?

Video: Watch Martha MacCallum's interview

The Homeland Security Department has just introduced a — very early, they want to stress — version of a scanner that can allegedly detect the anxiety of a terrorist.

Thomas Frank wrote an article about it in "USA Today" and is here now.

So, Thomas, they want to be very clear that this is a very early prototype. This is not in, you know, effect in any airport yet. It's just something they're working on, right?

THOMAS FRANK, USA TODAY: That's right. It's years away. It's a five-year development program that now is in its 15th or 16th month. So, it's still several years away. And what they're doing is actually testing and research to see actually if it will work. They may get to end of it (ph) and say, "You know — it doesn't work." But at this point, it's just testing and they're still researching it.

MACCALLUM: And, you know, with anxiety, of course, a lot of people, just flying gives them anxiety, so that would sort of spike their levels.

FRANK: Absolutely.

MACCALLUM: Is there an effort to sort of nuance the different kinds of anxiety that might rise in a fearful flier and a terrorist?

FRANK: Sure, that's a lot of what the research is about these days, trying to separate, as you say, the person who's anxious because he or she just sees that this flight has been cancelled and the person is anxious because he might try to do something. So, they're running test subjects through the screening machines and what they're doing is they're asking them to lie about some hostile action that they've been told they're going to do, to try to measure how people react physiologically to lying about whether they're going to cause a disturbance.

MACCALLUM: But don't terrorists, you know, sort of get training to kind of act as calm and normal, you know, through all different kinds of techniques as possible?

FRANK: Sure. And I think the good ones do.

MACCALLUM: Yes.

FRANK: But I think the idea is that these are physiological reactions like your heart rate, your body temperature, your breathing rate that you really can't control. So, it's not like you're looking at your facial expressions today (ph), where you can certainly learn how to keep a poker face but it's very hard, I think, to learn how to keep your heart rate still or keep yourself from sweating.

MACCALLUM: And I got to imagine that to a certain extent, it's a deterrent, you know. If I'm a terrorist just trying to pull something off and I know there's a machine there that might be able to kind of read my mind, maybe it's a deterrent.

FRANK: Well, that's true. The Homeland Security Department talks a lot about layers of security.

MACCALLUM: Right.

FRANK: They always say, well, there's no silver bullet, not one thing is going to stop terrorists. But if you throw a whole bunch of different machines and techniques and stuff at the terrorists, you're going to confuse them. They're not going to know what to expect. And eventually, they're just going to say, "You know what? I don't know what's going to happen when I going to this airport. It's too much trouble. I'm going to go elsewhere. I'm just not going to try it."

MACCALLUM: Yes.

FRANK: So, I think you're right. There is a deterrent element.

MACCALLUM: Yes. Let's hope that works.

So, Thomas Frank, thank you very much. Interesting story and interesting technology.

FRANK: Sure. Thank you.

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