Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lessons from a former El Al security official

As part of another volunteer activity of mine I recently was privileged to hear a terrorism security consultant discuss some issues related to Homeland Security. The speaker, a former member of an Israeli airport security force, discussed the differences between Israeli airport security and the rest of the world.

It was a stark, but realistic and common sense appraisal of what most travelers already know.

El Al and Ben Gurion Airport have been remarkably successful in staying safe, considering the considerable enemies faced. So it was surprising to me that the speaker started out with criticism of the TSA and the ongoing efforts in this country and most of the rest of the world as it relates to airport and airline security.

Did you know, that there are no restrictions on El Al Airlines as far as liquid carryons? I didn't.

Israel doesn't worry about what is being carried on board airliners, its concerns are with who is being carried on airliners. Every passenger coming through Ben Gurion or boarding an Israeli flight is talked to by security officials and interviewed. Several rings of security, which start in the Ben Gurion parking lot and don't end until folks get on the plane, don't slow down security, they actually help speed it up.

"When was the last time you were talked to by airport security personnel in a meaningful way?," the speaker asked.

Israeli security officials are intensely trained on what to ask and what to look for in passengers who pose a risk. Every layer of Israeli security is empowered to act on any suspicions it has about a would-be traveler. Passengers in Israel or flying on Israeli flights must pass through a number of rings of security. In other airport security systems, there are only "security patches."

In some cases, people who raise suspicions are allowed to fly, but only after a complete body search and then they fly with an escort or marshall watching their every move on board the airliner. They will likely face additional scrutiny when the arrive in Israel.

Shoe bomber Richard Reid was one of those who raised suspicions and eventually flew into Ben Gurion escorted on the flight by a flight marshall. In later interviews he said he never flew on El Al again because, "too many people asking questions." He also picked another airliner to attack when he finally made his attack.

"Current airport security is focused too much on the means, and not enough on the terrorist. Don't look for bombs, look for bombers." Makes sense to me.

Certainly Israel uses technology and physical screening, but that's only a small part of their security approach.

The interviewing and suspicion is not based on ethnicity either. Israel doesn't profile based solely on your looks or physical factors, but on what your answers to their questions are. And a trained knowledge of body language. They are constantly tested on their proficiency in unannounced drills, he said.

In many cases this scrutiny costs less than the current technology heavy methods we use now, the agent said.

As soon as terrorists found out we were screening for liquids, they sent a terrorist on board the aircraft wearing liquids as underwear, the speaker pointed out. A series of speakers at the conference pointed out that while some might find comfort in the failure of recent terrorist attack attempts, most speakers point out that only the incompetence of the terrorist, and not effective law enforcement or intelligence saved us from a disaster.

"Most security efforts are aimed at the last attack and not the next one," the speaker said.

And random screening, such as pulling out a passenger every so often to reduce the liability for "profiling" is useless, the man said. Our worries about liability and negatively affecting our ability to make flights safe.

Israel avoids the liability by making everyone subject to the interviews and scrutiny until they have satisfied the system that they do not pose a threat.

Food for thought next time some TSA officer confiscates your 5-ounce bottle of expensive perfume you accidentally left in your travel kit.

7 comments:

Dash said...

That sounds like a much better way to handle security but I fear it's impractical here. Israel has a population just over 7 million, roughly the same as the state of Virginia. With the U.S. over 300 million plus coutless more flight into the country, can you imagine how early you'd have to arrive to the airport if we adapted this system? Plus or do-gooder Congress would never allow such "abuses" to ever harm us.....

Jim of L-Town said...

Actually Dash, the early interviews clear quickly the folks who in our system have to wait in long lines with everyone else.

The 80-year-old grandmothers, families traveling together can be cleared very quickly by trained interrogators. Their screening is actually shorter than ours, except if you are one of those who raise suspicion and then yes, you will be seriously delayed or not allowed to fly at all.

Jim of L-Town said...

Actually Dash, the early interviews clear quickly the folks who in our system have to wait in long lines with everyone else.

The 80-year-old grandmothers, families traveling together can be cleared very quickly by trained interrogators. Their screening is actually shorter than ours, except if you are one of those who raise suspicion and then yes, you will be seriously delayed or not allowed to fly at all.

Dash said...

I heard you the first time :-)

Susan said...

Perhaps, if the TSA hired "trained" personnel, instead of McDonald's rejects, the common sense approach might be successful. The security consultant you heard certainly sounds like a person who really has a handle on what we should be doing. I was appalled when my father had to remove his shoes when we took the Honor Flight to see the WWII memorial! The only problem with the common sense approach, you would be accused of profiling.

Anonymous said...

If we did airport security the way El Al does, I don't think 9-11 would have happened.

brokenbiro said...

I've flown on El Al a few times and although you feel like a criminal being questioned (usually twice, by different people after an interval) I've always felt safer because of it. I did turn up late at Ben Gurion airport once (petrol crisis!) inadvertantly wearing a Palestinian scarf and had me bags searched - but they still got me on my flight!