Thursday, August 17, 2006


Taking a page from Israeli security forces, the US has started using a technique for screening at airports that focuses on the people rather than the methodology to stop terrorism. Although currently only an experimental program, the technological escalation of the British sky plot will pressure the Transportation Security Administration into deploying this across all airports:

As the man approached the airport security checkpoint here on Wednesday, he kept picking up and putting down his backpack, touching his fingers to his chin, rubbing some object in his hands and finally reaching for his pack of cigarettes, even though smoking was not allowed.

Two Transportation Security Administration officers stood nearby, nearly motionless and silent, gazing straight at him. Then, with a nod, they moved in, chatting briefly with the man, and then swiftly pulled him aside for an intense search.

Another airline passenger had just made the acquaintance of the transportation agency’s “behavior detection officers.”

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

So far, these specially trained officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide, including Dulles International Airport here outside Washington, and they represent just a tiny percentage of the transportation agency’s 43,000 screeners.

But after the reported liquid bomb plot in Britain, agency officials say they want to have hundreds of behavior detection officers trained by the end of next year and deployed at most of the nation’s biggest airports.

Israel, which has had to contend with terrorism on airplanes for much longer than anyone else, has maintained a high record of success with this approach. Israel doesn't worry about what a passenger might carry onto a flight as much as they focus on the traveler himself. John Hinderaker at Power Line described his experiences flying El Al several years ago, while traveling with his family to Israel. After only asking a couple of questions, the screener wished him a happy vacation, assured that John meant no harm. (Apparently, the Israeli screener has never seen John in court.)

This approach allows people who present no danger to travel without being treated like a criminal from the moment they step into the airport to the time the plane lands at their destination. Israel understands that restricting items from carry-on luggage, or eliminating carry-on luggage entirely, will not stop a determined effort by terrorists to seize flights or destroy them. Therefore, the screeners focus on the passengers themselves. If they find one that makes them nervous, they start doing a more in-depth interrogation and a thorough search of the passenger and his luggage, carry-on or not.

It's this subjective analysis that has civil libertarians opposed to such procedures in the US. The Times notes that some complain that such a program could turn into racial profiling without any objective safeguards. Some passengers who refused to cooperate in interviews got threatened with arrest, prompting lawsuits. The program in Dulles has uncovered over fifty people whose reactions revealed ill intent, although none of them terror-related.

These criticisms should have died on 9/11. The important point about airport security is to secure the airport and the airplanes, not worry that social attitudes may get bruised. If done properly -- and the Israeli consultants say we have more work to get to that stage -- then this program can catch the actual terrorists and leave the rest of us to travel in peace. Selection comes from a wide net of casual interactions, from which screeners narrow down the potential problems. That seems like a reasonable program, and its success would allow travelers to carry their Juicy Juice and Gatorade on board without getting tackled on the ramp.

One would think that after the latest terrorist plot got revealed, people would understand the need for better screening techniques and the desire to replicate the success of the Israelis. Some people will only be satisfied if passengers travel equally naked and equally shackled to their seats, rather than just find the few people who actually mean us harm.

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