The year almost ended with a bang. If not for some brave, smart passengers on that Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam, a Muslim underwear bomber would have succeeded in blowing a hole through 2010.
After every brush with air disaster comes the same question: Why can’t America’s air security be more like Israel’s?
“From the perspective of security, one [airport] is in a class by itself: Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote on HuffingtonPost.com.
“In the wake of the thwarted terrorist attempt on Northwest Flight 253, it’s time to revisit the Israeli model, as other countries ask what more can be done to prevent such near-catastrophes.”
Anyone who has ever flown to and from Israel can’t help but compare the experience of an airline security check in America with one in Israel. It’s like comparing rotten apples to oranges.
The New York Times even started a blog site for frustrated people like us, where we can discuss the merits of the Israeli system.
“Boarding a plane at Ben Gurion airport,” one blogger related perfectly, “shoes aren’t removed (no stocking feet!), passengers aren’t body scanned, and there are no pat downs. There are, however, plenty of questions asked by intelligent security officers who have got their eyes firmly on you, know exactly what to look for, and have no qualms about detaining any individual or group who arouse their suspicions. Once you pass muster, your luggage is X-rayed, you walk through a metal detector and you’re in. That’s that.”
The standard response to the plea for more Israeli-style security is twofold: the numbers of passengers they encounter isn’t comparable, and, anyway, the Israelis pick on Arabs, they condone profiling.
Yes, Israel is small. El Al, according to The Times, has 38 aircraft, 46 destinations and had fewer than two million passengers in 2008. Delta has 449 aircraft and 375 destinations.
In 2008, Ben Gurion served 11.5 million passengers. Amsterdam served 47.4 million total, and Detroit served 35.1 million total in 2008.
But how does size obviate the need for smarts? It can’t take more time to ask a passenger four penetrating questions than it does to strip her to her jammies and paw through her toiletry kit.
As for profiling, Israel doesn’t do it.
“They don’t profile people, they profile behavior,” said Jack Weiss.
In 2006, then-City Councilman Weiss invited four Israeli airport security experts to tour Los Angeles International Airport along with the mayor and city officials.
Although the experts didn’t examine the passenger screening process — it is not the purview of the city — they did share their insights.
“They don’t come up and say, ‘You’re from Nigeria,’ and pull you out of line,” Weiss explained. “They observe your behavior. A number of people will talk to you and try to throw you off balance.”
An Arab Israeli acquaintance told me he sometimes gets more questions than Jewish passengers, sometimes not. In any case, he likes flying El Al. Surprisingly, he doesn’t want to die in an airplane bombing, either.
No, the problem isn’t size or profiling, it’s smarts. Read this step-by-step account, reported by CBS news from an Israeli intelligence official, of how Israel keeps its skies safe:
Shlomo Dror says that, while there are sky marshals on every flight, they are the last line of defense. If they have to spring into action, it means the security system has failed. Where does the system begin?
“We have a list of names, people who are involved in terrorist action,” he explains, “and, of course, we are checking all the names… We are running them through the computer.”
They run every name through. Every person who goes to the airport, they have already checked that name. “The moment that you buy the ticket, we have your name, we have your passport number, and we can check it,” Dror says.
They check you again when you drive to the airport in Tel Aviv. What looks like a tollbooth is actually a security gate. Guards with automatic weapons eyeball everyone. If you drive through too quickly, there’s another guard further down the road. And the rings of security tighten as you arrive.
Before you even enter the terminal, you’ve been through three rings of security. The minute you buy your ticket, your name is sent to Israeli intelligence and to Interpol, so they know quite a bit about you before you even get to the airport.
The second ring is a gate with armed guards inspecting your car.
The third ring: Men with jackets and sweaters, concealing their weapons, who will watch you come in.
Three checks, and you haven’t even entered the terminal yet – which is where the real security begins.
Security there is a far cry from American airports, like LaGuardia in New York. There is no curbside check-in in Israel. You can’t run to the counter at the last minute, or pay for your ticket in cash, unless you want to be questioned for hours.
In the States, the National Guard is everywhere. In Israel, the security is almost invisible. You won’t see anyone with a uniform.
“Why should we? It is not a fighting place,” says Efraim Sneh, Israel’s minister of transportation.
But that doesn’t mean nobody there has a weapon. In fact, about 50 percent of the people working at the airport are involved in security, and many of them are very well armed. Some of them, you can spot, like the guys looking for bombs behind vending machines and in trash cans every few minutes. Others, you’d never spot unless they have reaon to spot you.
But more likely than not, the first security official you will encounter is a young woman in her early 20s, a student probably, fresh out of the army. She will want to ask you a few questions. Merav Rosen is a supervisor. She’s 28 and has worked at Ben Gurion seven years.
What is she looking for?
“Anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit,” she says. “People that ask too many questions, people who seem to be lying, to be hiding something from us. We look for the extraordinary, what is not normal, what we don’t know as normal.”
Before she started working at the airport, Rosen was in the Israeli army, in intelligence. She and the people working under her are profilers. That’s what they’re called. They question passengers, sometimes extensively, to see if they match secret profiles of suspected terrorists.
“Profile” may be a dirty word in the United States. But Sneh’s reaction is: “We have to secure our passengers, our airplanes, and words do not scare us. Bombs do.”
Until recently, Rafi Ron was director of security at the Tel Aviv airport. He knows how sophisticated terrorists have become.
“We believe that profiling is a very important concept in aviation security,” he says. “Finding a bomb is not such an easy thing. Bombs don’t look any more like a black, round thing with a smoking fuse coming out of them. They take…almost every possible shape. They are created out of so many type of materials that it has become extremely difficult to find the bomb.”
That’s why it’s so important to find the terrorist before he gets on the plane. And the Israelis say they cannot do that without profiling, or selecting, passengers who match certain profiles.
Explains Rafi Ron, “It is much more difficult to find out the naïve people that are being used by terrorists. Take, for example, the famous case of the Irish girl in the ‘80s whose name is Anne Marie Murphy.”
In 1986, Anne Marie Murphy, a young Irish woman, was planning to take an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv to meet the parents of her fiance, a Palestinian. Murphy, who was pregnant, had no idea that the man she was planning to marry had hidden plastic explosives and a detonator in one of her suitcases. Israeli profilers interviewing Murphy found out about her boyfriend, got suspicious, and then discovered the bomb before the jumbo jet took off.
“It is quite intrusive, the questions we ask,” explains Rosen. “And, sometimes, people are not happy to answer them. But we try to explain that this is the situation, and in Israel, we can’t afford to miss.”
At Israel’s airport counters, personnel are college students or graduates who have also completed army service. They are uniformly intelligent and well trained. That is often not the case with Transportation Security Administration employees.
“The TSA should be hiring talented and skilled people; it should not be an alternative to Welfare.,” said Israel-based security consultant Marc Prowiser.
Of course, brains cost money, so one question is, how much are we willing to pay to be El Al-safe?
The visit Weiss (who now blogs at jewishjournal.com) arranged led to a low-cost security consulting agreement that has brought improved surveillance technology, police checkpoints, vehicle barriers and tighter perimeter controls to LAX. A 2008 follow-up visit found security much improved.
One first step for better airline safety is to emulate that Israeli consulting model at airports around the world. The second is for these consultants to tell us what it would take to apply the Israeli standard to passenger check in, and then allow We the People to decide whether the price is right.