Image: Ben Gurion Airport
A security officer questions passengers during their check-in last October at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
By
msnbc.com

In the wake of Sept. 11, U.S. airports, airlines and the federal government are still grappling with the enormous task of making America’s skies friendly again. In the six months since the tragedy, they’ve drawn heavily on the experience of the most terror-targeted nation on earth: Israel.

Israel's national airline, El Al, has been touted for decades as the world’s safest, despite — or perhaps because of — its home base in a nation that faces domestic terrorism constantly.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that the first plane leaving the New York area when flights resumed after Sept. 11 was an El Al 747 headed for Tel Aviv. After 33 years of terror-free flying, the government-run airline and its home airport, Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gurion, where security is tight as a drum for all carriers, have become blueprints for the way U.S. aviation security ought to work.

Over the past six months, former El Al executives and Ben Gurion security officials have been flocking to America. Prominent Israeli experts have testified before Congress and a growing number are signing contracts as in-house consultants at the nation’s top airports.

Israeli security personnel can take credit for saving hundreds of innocent lives over the years by quickly identifying terrorists, or their patsies, and intercepting their lethal luggage.

A different philosophy
In his November testimony before a House committee on improving air security, former El Al security chief Isaac Yeffet cited numerous examples of these foiled attempts at terror.

Yeffet told the story of a 1986 flight that might well have been destroyed except for Israel’s unusual security measures. A young, pregnant Irish woman tried to board that flight at London’s Heathrow airport to fly to Tel Aviv. She carried a bag packed by her Jordanian boyfriend ostensibly filled with “gifts” for his family in Israel. Unbeknownst to the woman, the bag was actually a ticking bomb, set to go off somewhere over Greece.

Airline bombsUnder interrogation that is typical of El Al’s security procedures, the woman had revealed that she only had about $75 in cash, yet she was going to stay at the Tel Aviv Hilton, one of the city’s most sumptuous hotels. This didn’t add up as far as the Israeli security officials were concerned. After an X-ray failed to detect anything untoward in her bag, screeners took an extra moment to empty it and then weigh it. When they found it to be surprisingly heavy, a hand search uncovered 7 pounds of deadly explosives expertly tucked away in the lining.

From this and numerous other examples, Yeffet concluded that the prevailing U.S. emphasis on technology as the primary line of defense is deeply flawed.

“X-ray machines can help in assisting the security people, but can never replace the qualified and well trained personnel that can determine who is innocent, and who is not, by the interview process,” Yeffet said in his testimony. “Human beings invent security machines, thus humans can invent new ways to overcome these devices by outsmarting them.”

A change in attitude
Other Israeli officials — and a growing number of American security consultants — agree that aviation security has to be multipronged in its approach. In addition to even the most advanced X-ray machines, metal detectors and explosive-detecting devices, today’s security must include advance intelligence about passengers from linked government databases, tamper-proof cockpit doors, sky marshals on every flight, and yes, some degree of passenger “profiling.”

“When you have a jumbo jet with 450 passengers, you don’t want to waste your time with every old lady and every 10-year-old girl,” said Zaev Friedman, a consultant for ISDS, a 20-year-old Israeli security consulting firm currently negotiating with several U.S. airports.

“Ethnicity is only one aspect of a person’s profile,” added Friedman, acknowledging the American fear that any type of profiling will inevitably lead to racial harassment. After asking a few simple questions about a passenger’s itinerary, the overall purpose of the journey and how a ticket was purchased, according to Friedman, a well-trained questioner can quickly separate those few who might warrant more thorough scrutiny from the majority who don’t.

Can you spot the threats?This Israeli approach differs completely from the current U.S. model, which is based almost entirely on randomness.

“By running random checks, you are wasting your resources,” Ben Gurion’s most recent security chief, Rafi Ron, told MSNBC.com in an interview at Logan airport, where he is now consulting to improve security measures.

“If random checks are run on a 1-to-10 basis, which is more or less normal in this country,” said Ron, “that means you are putting the system at a 1-to-10 chance of detecting a terrorist, and this is unacceptable.”

Ron also has problems with the current post-Sept. 11 American obsession with innocuous things like manicure kits being used as weapons. Although well intended, it’s simply “unintelligent,” according to Ron.

“Everybody understands — including the passengers — that the relevance of your nail file to the security of the flight is nil. It doesn’t exist,” said Ron. “By wasting your time and attention on breaking nail files away from nail cutters, you are simply not aiming in the right direction.”

In the past six months, many industry experts have acknowledged that the budget-driven security that existed under the Federal Aviation Administration — and resulted in minimum wages for screeners — was the soft underbelly of the pre-9/11 system.

Learning the security trade
As a Florida-based aviation security adviser who runs his own investigative firm, Wayne Black has spotted poorly trained screeners tossing underwear out of suitcases for no apparent reason.

This kind of activity is all smoke and mirrors, according to Black: “If I was a bad guy, this kind of stuff would tell me that we don’t know what we’re doing yet. I’d think, ‘Jeez, this is a piece of cake!’”

Black, who embraces much of what the Israeli system has to offer, also believes the United States will inevitably start profiling to keep the skies safe. The word might lose some of its stigma, said Black, if screeners were better trained and learned the kind of technical profiling investigators and law enforcement officers already use so effectively to track down criminals.

“A person must not be profiled just because his name is Ahmed,” said Black, in reference to some egregious post-Sept. 11 attempts at profiling. “There has to be some other criteria. Like if they’re also on a government list as a member of a New Jersey mosque where all the ‘bad guys’ came from, then we ought to put them under a microscope.”

Apples and oranges?
But as compelling as certain Israeli security techniques sound, James Mitchell, a spokesman for the new federal Transportation Security Agency, said it’s impossible to compare

Israel’s aviation system with that of the United States’.

“It’s one thing to look at El Al,” said Mitchell. “But there’s no comparison. Israel is a tiny country. They have no connecting flights, and a minuscule number of departures everyday.”

Indeed, El Al’s 30 planes and 90 flights per day are a tiny fraction of the roughly 25,000 planes that take off daily across the United States.

According to Mitchell, even seemingly small adoptions of Israeli anti-terror techniques pose problems for U.S. aviation. “Take reinforced cockpit doors, for instance,” he said. “That’s a great idea, but most American fleets only have bathrooms in the main cabin. On long-haul flights, what’s the captain supposed to do? Keep his legs crossed?”

“While it’s certainly interesting to get the Israeli view on everything from profiling to airplane outfitting,” said Mitchell, “the U.S. has to find its own way of balancing security with the best service to the traveling public.”

Logan’s Ron is the first to admit that everything Israel does can’t be translated directly to the United States. But he still says Americans can’t continue to ignore passengers.

“As long as we don’t deal with that side of it,” said Ron, “we are due to have the Richard Reids of this world on our airplanes, and what then?”

“If someone with a bit more experience than Reid manages to detonate his explosives before somebody runs him over, then the airplane is gone and it’s 9/11 all over again.”

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