November 22, 2010

Israeli security and American illusions

The face of the TSA - why doesn't this make me feel safe?

Much attention is being paid to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's airport security organization, the Transportation Security Administration. It needs to be under tough scrutiny. It is another bloated, ineffective federal bureaucracy inside a larger bloated, ineffective and unnecessary federal department.

No one can point to any successful TSA operations to secure civil aviation in the United States. This is because the agency is hampered by its own self-imposed politically correct restrictions, its refusal to adopt proven screening techniques and probably most important, it's ability to attract only the most inept and incompetent employees. As I have said in the past, "it's the same morons but now with federal benefits." Now they are led by what appears to be an incompetent John Pistole, but an arrogant incompetent John Pistole.

Contrast this farcical theater with the screening conducted by the Israelis for all El Al flights worldwide, and for other airlines' flights departing from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I have gone through Israeli security many times over the last three decades. It appears to work. You get the sense that the security personnel are actually trying to provide effective screening, as opposed to the feeling that the TSA merely provides the illusion that they are preventing attacks on aviation. Granted, El Al only has a fleet of about 30 aircraft and does not have to deal with the volume of passengers that TSA faces, but TSA has ballooned to over 60,000 federal employees.

Israeli security is multi-layered, thorough and professional. As you approach Ben Gurion, there is a checkpoint before passengers even enter the airport. A police officer looks in the vehicle and determines whether or not the occupants have business at the airport. This usually involves producing a passport and/or ticket, and may involve a cursory check of the trunk for luggage.

As the vehicle approaches the terminal, there are both uniformed and plain-clothes security officers observing as passengers move toward the entrance, watching for suspicious behavior. If any questionable behavior is suspected, the passenger is stopped and questioned before he/she even gets to the door of the terminal.

Once inside the terminal, every passenger is interviewed by a security officer. This initial screening involves a document check and a rudimentary threat assessment. For most travelers, this is done quickly. For those with certain indicators in their documents, there is additional screening. I have experience with both outcomes.

Years ago, while my duties with the government took me to countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc., my passport was replete with visas and entry/exit stamps from these countries. An example from my passport:

Once the officer saw these stamps, she called another officer to ask more questions. Why had I traveled to these countries, who did I meet in these countries, what was my reason for being in Israel, who had I met with in Israel, what hotel did I use, etc. Generally I could point to the passport which was clearly marked as an official passport and explain all travels indicated by the visas and stamps were on behalf of the United States government.

On later occasions when I was traveling with a new passport without all the stamps and carrying a letter from whatever American Jewish groups that had sponsored my visit to Israel, I was given only a cursory review.

All baggage is then checked before passengers are allowed to go to the ticket counter. Once there, the agent checks travel documents against the electronic records and issues a boarding pass. Then passengers proceed to immigration where the passports are run through a data base. Only then are the passengers allowed to move to the gate area. Throughout this entire process, observation by trained security officers continues.

The Israelis get it: profile and be safe. The TSA does not: put on a show and create the illusion of security.

For an excellent article on this, read my friend Michael Totten's
Forget the 'porn machines' - How Israelis secure airports