Hit & Run

TSA to Implement Israel-Style Airport Security Procedures

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Next time carry a business card and this won't happen

The Boston Herald reports that the Transportation Security Administration will be trying out Israel-style screening techniques at Logan International Airport: 

The training for the Israeli-style screening — a projected $1 billion national program dubbed Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques — kicks off today at Logan International Airport and will be put to use in Terminal A on Aug. 15. It requires screeners to make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.

Under the SPOT program, as passengers hand over their boarding passes and identification, specially trained agents will ask three to four questions — from "Where have you been?" to "Do you have a business card?" and "Where are you traveling?" — while looking for "micro expressions," such as lack of eye contact, that might hint at nefarious intent.

Suspicious individuals will be pulled aside for more questioning, full-body scans and pat-downs. If the encounter escalates, agents will call in state police.

At Logan, about 70 agents — all with college degrees — are undergoing training by an international consulting firm that includes a four-day classroom course and 24 hours of on-the-job experience, said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.

Skeptics of the current TSA system, which treats every passenger like a potential terrorist, have been divided over the wisdom of using Israel's psychological screening in the states, where the average big city airport does twice as much traffic per year as Ben Gurion International, Israel's only international airport. Here's the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg writing in January 2010:

At what point do we model American airline security after Israeli security? The answer, I think, is never, not because it wouldn't work, but because we can't scale up. Israel's one national airport, Ben-Gurion, has a total passenger capacity of 10 million annually; Baltimore-Washington International, by contrast, processes more than 20 million a year -- I pick BWI because the security lines there, in my experience, go fairly smoothly, but they wouldn't if the airport adopted the Israeli system. The Israeli system, which features individual interviews with each traveler, also wouldn't work because, cow-like though we are, Americans are not going to stand for the invasive questioning that is the most crucial component of the Israeli system. Also, we'd have to show up at the airport five hours ahead of our flights to be processed at the more overcrowded American airports. I'm having a hard time imagining this happening. 

The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby argued otherwise in 2006

Nearly five years after Sept. 11, 2001, US airport security remains obstinately focused on intercepting bad things -- guns, knives, explosives. It is a reactive policy, aimed at preventing the last terrorist plot from being repeated. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so sharp metal objects were barred from carry-on luggage. Would-be suicide terrorist Richard Reid tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe, so now everyone's footwear is screened for tampering. Earlier this month British authorities foiled a plan to blow up airliners with liquid explosives; as a result, toothpaste, eye drops, and cologne have become air-travel contraband.

Of course the Israelis check for bombs and weapons too, but always with the understanding that things don't hijack planes, terrorists do -- and that the best way to detect terrorists is to focus on intercepting not bad things, but bad people. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El Al and Ben Gurion depends on intelligence and intuition -- what Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben Gurion, calls the "human factor" that technology alone can never replace.

Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials constantly monitor behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger: bulky clothing, say, or a nervous manner. Profilers -- yes, that's what they're called -- make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length. They probe, as one profiling supervisor recently explained to CBS, for "anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit." Their questions can seem odd or intrusive, especially if your only previous experience with an airport interrogation was being asked whether you packed your bags yourself.

Unlike in US airports, where passengers go through security after checking in for their flights and submitting their luggage, security at Ben Gurion comes first. Only when the profiler is satisfied that a passenger poses no risk is he or she allowed to proceed to the check-in counter. By that point, there is no need to make him remove his shoes, or to confiscate his bottle of water.

Gradually, airport security in the United States is inching its way toward screening people, rather than just their belongings. 

More Reason on TSA