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How Safe are America’s Skies?

Not very, says an Israeli security expert, who is trying to fix that one airport at a time
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

The United States has been spared a repeat of the September 11 terror attacks, but Americans were reminded again this week that the threat of terrorism is far from over. Late Monday, the FBI alerted 18,000 law-enforcement agencies that it had uncovered evidence of a possible attack planned for as early as Tuesday. The agency distributed photos of potential terrorist suspects and warned Americans to be on “the highest alert.”

TRAVELING HAS BECOME a scary, or at least frustrating, experience for many passengers, and it may take years before the American public feels comfortable again. But Boston Logan Airport, where two of the hijacked planes originated on September 11, has taken huge steps to allay travelers’ concerns. Last fall, the state agency Massport (which runs Logan) hired Raphael “Rafi” Ron, the former director of security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and a renowned aviation-security expert, to identify problems and help implement new security improvements at the Boston airport. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett spoke with Ron about the safety of U.S. airports and America’s vulnerability to another terrorist attack.

NEWSWEEK: Do you think Boston’s Logan Airport was singled out by the terrorists on September 11 because of deficiencies in its security, or could the hijackings have happened at any U.S. airport?

Rafi Ron: I can say that, even though two of the aircraft that took off on September 11 came from Logan, I don’t think it was a poor security performance. It’s not that I suggest that the security performance was excellent; but, the overall standards at American airports were very poor and Logan was a part of the national standard.

So how vulnerable is U.S. aviation to a similar attack?

I’d say American aviation is not yet fully ready in terms of security procedures, but the public awareness fills the gap at the moment. This natural reaction of the public is extremely important and allows time for the establishment of a proper professional approach to deal with the problems. Still, this is something we cannot rely on on a long-term basis. By the time the system would be adjusted fully to the threat, I assume that, to some extent, the public awareness would decline.

Most of those involved in the effort to improve the security performance in airports, their drive is very strong, maybe unrealistic. People expect the security system to reach a level of perfection that is not possible. It took [Israel] 30 years to get where we are and I don’t think that is necessarily where the American aviation system should be. The situation is different and the threat is not the same here. I think it will be a while until the system develops, though. In my professional opinion, we’ll probably see the end of another year before the system here in the U.S. will exercise the kind of standards that we all hope to have.

How much of a role does public awareness play in preventing terrorist attacks?

It plays an important role in detecting problems before they occur. In Israel, over 80 percent of attempted terrorist attacks are discovered by the public. In many cases, bombs left by terrorists are discovered by the public. I know that the way the public relates to the threat now is on a high level and it’s good. But I don’t suggest that we rely on that for the long term, nor do I suggest that we make it a regular pattern of the American public to jump on a person when suspicion arises. Then we might end up with a lynching in the style of the Wild West, and we don’t want that to happen.

There has never been a hijacking at Ben Gurion. What are some of the strategies that have worked so well at that airport? Which will you adapt at Logan?

There has never been a hijacking out of Ben Gurion and I hope there will never be. I can say that the security system at Ben Gurion airport—which is not 100 percent, because there is no 100 percent system anywhere—is strong enough to deal with the threat.

Those strategies that have worked well are based not only on looking for weapons but also looking at people. It’s the combination of the two. September 11 is the strongest support for that argument because it had nothing to do with weapons but with people. I don’t consider cardboard cutters as weapons; they weren’t before September 11 and they probably shouldn’t be now. We must assume that one way or another weapons can be smuggled on board. If it’s not a box cutter, than the heel of a woman’s shoe or a man’s belt—almost anything can become a weapon. But neglecting to look at a person is the weakness of many approaches in the past.

Bombs can take almost any possible shape nowadays as a result of the cold war. At Ben Gurion, we believe there is a way to detect them. The level of checking is like a forensic level—it takes an average of 57 minutes per person. Now, obviously, you cannot provide that level of check to everybody so you have to use your intelligence.

What type of person would be submitted to such a thorough check?

Who do you want to invest 57 minutes of your time with? It is a waste of time to spend it on checking you or me, but not with Richard Reid. When he decided to fly to Israel seven months ago from Amsterdam on El Al, he was subjected to profiling. He was selected as a suspicious passenger and given a full check from hair to [shoe] sole which proved he carried no bomb or weapon. Then, even though he was allowed on board, El Al made sure he was sitting near the sky marshal, who had been given information to keep an eye on him. This is what I call good, strong, solid security.

So how was Reid, the so-called “Shoe Bomber,” able to get onto the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami?

What happened on American Airlines was different, not because of the airline but because of French police conduct. The airline singled out Reid as a suspicious person and then they delivered him to the French police. The police interrogated him for two hours but failed to search him properly. Still, by the time the interrogation finished, he had missed the flight. But he came back the next day and American Airlines singled him out again but the French police said he had been cleared the day before and let him board. This is where we come to the importance of public awareness. Luckily, passengers and crew realized what was going on and they stopped him. I would suggest that if a marshal had been on board, it would have been even better.

Are you suggesting that U.S. marshals be placed on all domestic and international flights in and out of the U.S.?

Sky marshals should be federalized and should have all the power in order to do the job properly. This is part of the security system that America has to live with as long as threat is there and, at the moment, the threat is there. It may take time to train them and get them on all the airplanes. But a comprehensive sky marshal program is a very good idea.

How would you compare the security level at U.S. airports to those in Israel?

Ben Gurion has been living under a direct and obvious threat for the last 30 years; actually, 50 years, but the Israeli security operation started in the early 1970s when the sky marshaling program started in Israel. Then the airport security program started. We have been under constant threat and defending ourselves on a daily basis. So we developed an elaborate security system that was implemented into every aspect of Israeli aviation, whether on the ground or in the air. We had sky marshaling and reinforced, bulletproof cockpit doors in the 1970s, which now are being talked about here. I was one of the first sky marshals for El Al.

Yes, we were running a much tighter security system [in Israel] but this was based on the realization of the threat. Before September 11, very few—and I had not met any of them—claimed to have anticipated the particular threat of September 11. I can tell you no one was realizing that something like the September 11 attacks was imminent. It was only after the event itself that the threat became realistic and now people are willing to sacrifice what it takes to improve security. Many criticized the level of security provided before September 11. But if the type of security they are demanding now would have been suggested before September 11, the ideas probably would have been rejected because they cost too much money or create some hassle or take up space. You do security only when you are forced to do it.

What security improvements have you implemented at Logan already?

I am reluctant to discuss the professional aspects of what we are doing for obvious reasons. Because, as long as we are not finished doing what we have set out to do, I think it would be wrong to discuss the half-full cup because we then describe the other half. Even in March when we submit our final report to Massport, one of my first suggestions would be to keep the report a secret. I think it is not so wise to keep security operations transparent because this helps the terrorists to see the weak points. Even at Ben Gurion, we have some weak points but we are careful not to point them out.

How long will it take to implement all the changes?

Some changes are procedural, some are educational and may take some time. Some are related to technology and new systems. Altogether, I think it will take not less than a year to fully implement all the recommendations. But that doesn’t mean that Logan will be exposed during the year because there will be a lot of interim changes taken to allow for time for the more fundamental good quality system to be established.

How much will it cost?

It will not be cheap. I think the full security improvement program—including the technology and machinery and systems and construction work to be done and the training and deployment of people—will cost in the neighborhood of $100 million. But some will be covered by federal resources. I believe that, at the end of the day, the burden at any airport will not be cheap.

Why did you take this job?

Because it is a great challenge, from a professional point of view, starting here in Logan. It’s a great opportunity that I had and I think that my experience in running the system at Ben Gurion airport for the last five years equips me with everything it takes to consult with Massport in order to upgrade the system. I feel what I can provide the American airports is something that is necessary. I’m already in the process of discussing my services in other U.S. airports, other major airports.

Ideally, what improvements would you like to see in the American airports?

There is no ideal situation—it doesn’t exist. I try to stay with my feet on the ground and not make recommendations that are not feasible in an American environment. I don’t want to end up like many predecessors that made beautiful recommendations that were never implemented. But as far as relating to a real situation, I would like to see that Logan, as well as the other U.S. airports, focuses on a professional system that looks at both passengers and also for weapons, which is part of a wider aviation approach. There should be a federal focus on aviation security in terms of intelligence efforts and dissemination of intelligence. I would also think that if the American system would adopt a uniform standard for all American airports it would make everyone’s lives easier and, perhaps, cheaper because every airport would not have to recheck every passenger but could rely on each other.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.