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.