With the innumerable draconian restrictions put in place by authorities since the Sept. 11 attacks, air travel has become infinitely less pleasant. But has it become any less dangerous?
Of the visible changes to airline security in the past five years, most have been "irrational, wasteful and pointless," according to Patrick Smith, a long-time airline pilot and author of a popular column on air travel for salon.com. The "senseless confiscation of pointy objects," he argues, has contributed little to preventing another world-changing disaster.
Shabtai Shoval, president and founder of Suspect Detection Systems in Tel Aviv, goes a step further.
"I don't believe the Sept. 11 model has even been addressed at all," he said. "I mean, let's look at it: These guys entered the country a year before their attack; they had no real weapons to speak of; they used their own identities, not fake ones.
"Has anything been done since then that could prevent an attack from such people? No," he continued. "To this day, there is not a single tool, applied on an industrial scale, which even pretends to deal with a Sept. 11-like problem." The real danger, both Smith and Shoval agree, lies in the authorities' Sisyphean chase after the last item used to try to take down an airplane.
"Regardless of how many hobby knives and shampoo bottles we confiscate at the X-ray machine, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane," Smith said. "The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials; we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur."
In other words, airplanes are still susceptible to attack because security agents expend too much energy searching for bombs rather than bombers.
"The Western concept of searching for weapons is fundamentally flawed," Shoval stated definitively. "If a person has the intention to carry out an attack, then the means is secondary. Someone who wants to carry out an attack will figure out a way to do it, whether it's with one thing or with another. The person is what is important; the weapon is marginal. In fact, the person is the weapon."
How to locate people willing to turn themselves into weapons before they get a chance to do so has been the challenge since Sept. 11. Suspect Detection Systems does it with an extremely sophisticated machine called, Cogito, sort of a five-minute polygraph booth that Shoval expects to have up and running in Israel and in North America in 2007. The system, using complicated algorithms that constantly recalibrate the interrogation process, identifies people who react suspiciously to certain coded questions.
"It won't make things easier for passengers," Shoval said, "but it'll keep them alive."
Rafi Ron, former head of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, has been using a simpler form of Israeli know-how at Logan Airport in Boston, from which two of the four hijacked planes used in the Sept. 11 attacks originated.
Ron's behavior pattern recognition program is based on the interrogation methods developed by the Shin Bet and El Al for Israeli airline security - a vaunted and nearly impenetrable approach that, nonetheless, has taken a long time to catch on with the rest of the world.
"For the last four and a half years, the Israeli concept of aviation security was not widely accepted and adopted," Ron said. "The natural tendency of the U.S. authorities is to assume that technology can provide a solution for almost anything, so the main effort was focused on implementing technological solutions. But the understanding that this is not working well enough is leading many people in government to recognize the value of the Israeli approach."
In the Israeli approach, he explained, technology supports people.
"In America, that's backward," Ron said. "In other words, here the role of people is just to operate machines. We in Israel trust our human ability to make decisions, and trust in the idea of training security employees well and providing them with the authority to make decisions. In the U.S., though, it seems like the goal is to limit the decision-making factor to a minimum."
While the much-maligned U.S. Transportation Security Administration has trained more than 43,000 agents, Ron has brought other airport employees into the loop, as well, so they can alert authorities to suspicious behavior. They are a valuable security resource that has been neglected, with detrimental consequences, he said.
"One of the things we discovered was that many employees suffered from lack of confidence about what to look for and what to report," Ron pointed out. "The tendency to let somebody else report something is very strong.... Something that in Israel seems so natural - to see something and respond to it - needs to be learned here."
To counter terrorists who have dedicated themselves to thinking outside the box, Ron has used very Israeli improvisational skills - as in the case of the clam diggers.
He explained that Logan is surrounded by water on three sides, and clam diggers have always worked the airport's perimeter. Rather than treat the clam diggers as a security threat, Ron's team turned them into an asset.
"They agreed to provide us with some pertinent information, and as a result, we provided them with ID badges that allowed them to be around the area and gave them walkie-talkies to report suspicious activity. So what we gained with the cost of a few walkie-talkies and a few classes of training is a continuous presence around the airport for most hours of the day."
After turning the security concept upside down at Logan Airport, Ron exported his behavior pattern recognition program to other locales, as well. It is not just about teaching security personnel to identify signs of stress and nervousness that point to criminal intent, but about turning weaknesses into strengths.
At Miami International Airport, for instance, Ron put the police through a "fundamental change" in their approach to security.
"Policemen have been accustomed for years to being responsive," Ron explained. "In other terms, they were measured by their ability to make arrests and have people convicted. Obviously, a crime has to be committed before you can make an arrest and collect evidence.
"What we are saying is: It's all about prevention and deterrence, rather than detention and conviction. So now, instead of waiting for something bad to happen, they are going out and looking to prevent it from happening." He said. The behavior pattern recognition program is now in place at airports in San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul, and it was adopted at the Statue of Liberty before the monument was reopened to the public two years ago.
It is spreading because of its results -- and because it seems to have won over TSA Director Kip Hawley and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who have recently begun using the same kind of language that Ron uses to describe the aviation security approach that the United States should have. "People have responded very well to bringing in Israeli methods," Ron said.
"Everybody who has been involved in this is highly motivated and happy with the result."
That isn't to say, however, that the United States is on the verge of adopting a fully Israeli approach. To understand why, first consider the layers of Israel's system.
Before passengers even reach Ben-Gurion International Airport, their names and passport numbers have been run through the Shin Bet database. On the entrance road to the airport, they must pass through a checkpoint manned by highly trained and heavily armed former combat soldiers. Inside the terminal, low-key agents keep an eye on the milling crowd, looking for suspicious characters.
Then, while waiting to check their bags, every single passenger is subjected to a brief questioning session. Multiple explosives detection systems are used to screen luggage, and exhaustive hand searches of luggage are common. Numerous air marshals are present on all El Al flights.
The cost of all this security, exorbitant but imperative for Israel, is prohibitive for the United States, which services many times the number of air travelers as Israel does.
"Ben-Gurion Airport accommodates about 8.5 million passengers a year," Ron said. "By contrast, traffic in the average large airport in the U.S. is in the neighborhood of 30 million a year. Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta accommodate some 70 [million] to 80 million a year."
That kind of volume makes interviewing every passenger impossible, most analysts believe. Bomb-detecting systems are still not as universally employed in the United States as they are in Israel due to the cost of the machines and the construction work necessary to accommodate them. In addition, airlines, already suffering terrible financial losses, are loath to give up even one seat to an air marshal on every single flight.
Then there are legal pitfalls surrounding the kind of surveillance and interrogation that Israel uses.
"There is a Fourth Amendment issue here," Ron explained, "which is that law enforcement officers can not question a person unless there is a probable cause, and there is a strict legal definition for what is a probable cause."
Shin Bet-like prescreening is also out of the question, Ron said.
"There is already a program that has been running since 1989 or so, after the Lockerbie disaster, known as CAPS," Ron said. "But it's not a very valuable program, and it's almost completely irrelevant now.
"TSA developed what it called CAPS II, which intended to use databases like credit evaluation companies, as well as other government databases, to really penetrate a person's background. But it was rejected by Congress because of privacy issues. It could have been a very valuable program, but it could have been very intrusive as well," he noted.
Most Americans are also extremely sensitive to profiling methods like behavior pattern recognition (BPR) and SDS's Cogito system. Both Ron and Shoval reject those concerns.
"We are fighting very hard to explain that profiling is not necessarily racial profiling, as most people perceive," Ron said. "When we started BPR, people were worried that it may have been just a fig leaf to cover racial profiling. But this was not the case, and we have developed ways to prevent this from turning into a racially discriminating process."
"People think that profiling means that I'm only searching for someone who is, say, Pakistani," Shoval added. "It's not that.... This system asks questions that pertain specifically to each individual, based on objective aspects of their identity.
"Profiling is not [so simple as] saying: In Israel, if you're Palestinian, you're suspected of being tied to terrorist groups," he continued.
A prime example is the 1986 case of Anne Murphy, a pregnant young Irish woman who was caught before her flight from London to Tel Aviv with a bomb in her luggage. Because Murphy was unaware that her Jordanian fiance had hidden the explosives in her bag, Heathrow security did not suspect her. El Al security, however, discovered that Murphy had been told to lie about her bags and soon discovered the bomb in a secret compartment.
Twenty years later, the West still lacks that kind of preparedness.
"What we have developed is a solution that falls short of the Israeli solution," Ron admitted But considering the dangers that still exist and the billions of dollars that most agree have not sufficiently addressed those dangers, implementing a solution that more closely resembles the Israeli one may not be far off.
One of the first Israeli measures to be adopted following the Sept. 11 attacks was to reinforce airplanes' cockpit doors to prevent hijackings. It has taken longer to implement other elements of the Israeli security system, but another piece of the puzzle is added all the time.
"At the end of the day, more and more people realize they won't be able to avoid using such methods," Ron believes. "From my interaction with government people here -- and I have a lot of it -- I see that these ideas are sinking in."