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Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Israeli security expert on why the TSA is all wrong

I've been writing for years about how awful US (and European) airport security is and how much better and more effective the Israeli model is. Now here's a real expert on why the TSA... er... I try not to use those words in this blog. Anyway, here's Rafi Sela, former head of security at Tel Aviv - Ben Gurion Airport with seven reasons why the TSA is so awful.
I went to meet with Joe Lieberman back when he was the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. Lieberman asked me to write a one-page letter to Congress and the Senate outlining America's major problems with airport security. I told him the biggest issue was that the TSA is a regulatory agency and a security agency. They essentially make their own rules. No one else -- not the FBI, not the CIA, not anyone but a loose-cannon New York cop -- gets to do that.
Lieberman and a colleague of his named John Mica pushed an "opt-out" program for airports in the Aviation and Security Act. The problem was, the TSA needed to write standards and regulations for this program, and they just weren't doing it. So I went to Kip Hawley, head of the TSA, and said, "Look -- my company and I helped write the regulations for the Israeli Security Agency at Ben Gurion Airport. Let us help you."
And he said, "Ah no no no, we've got this all covered. It's just a matter of time."
I said, "Bullshit. You don't know shit about airport security."
Fast forward to today. After years of delay, the TSA is finally almost ready to start processing all those pending opt-out requests. After only a dozen years.
Ben Gurion is probably the most threatened airport in the world. It has between 50 and 70 incidents every day. Nobody hears about those because we handle them. And despite a constant daily grind full of credible threats, we still drill the entire airport's security force seven times a day. No airport in the United States deals with regular daily threats -- yet they each drill only once or twice per year.
This is an even bigger problem when you think about the TSA's turnover problem. I call the TSA the biggest train system in the world, because it's common for much of the floor force to be replaced on a yearly basis. So if the TSA only drills once or twice a year, you've got a ton of screeners who go their entire (short) careers without ever being tested. People need to realize that security can't be treated like a fast food company. These people are tasked with finding bombs, not flipping burgers.
About 99.9 percent of travelers are just that: travelers. They want to get through security, buy a cup of coffee and some duty-free whiskey, then quietly drink and leech Wi-Fi from the airport McDonald's. These people pose no threat to anyone, and there's no point in even checking them. The very few terrorists that exist are like needles in a haystack. But the TSA's approach is to check every single piece of hay, in case it might actually be a needle.
But if you only check luggage and you don't check the person behind the luggage, how do you know he hasn't camouflaged something into the luggage that you can't find? Trust me: Hiding things is so easy to do, it isn't even funny. That's why the only luggage checks we do are to find things like aerosol cans, which might burst on their own. Otherwise, what we care about is intent.
The TSA treats each traveler the same because of some stupid idea that everything needs to be fair. Security needs to be done due to risk -- and risk means that in Israel we don't check luggage, we check people. And I'm not talking about racial profiling here; that's a product of poor training. Regardless of race or creed, people with bombs strapped to their body behave in similar ways. The TSA claims that finding IEDs at the checkpoint is their number one goal. But it's the people who mean us harm that we should look out for. Instead of checking intent, they check luggage.
And they don't even do it well: I have orthopedic insoles in my shoes made from composite material. On the machines, that composite looks identical to plastic explosives. I put them on the belt every time, and no one -- NO ONE -- ever questions my shoes. Some security experts suspect that the TSA has never once caught a terrorist at a checkpoint. And we know that at least 16 of them have flown into U.S. airports since 2004.
Meanwhile, Israel's airport security actually has stopped a bomb from getting on a plane using Israeli screening techniques. And what were those techniques?
We interview every single customer several times, but we don't really care what you have to say. We're paying attention to your behavior. Terrorism is a pretty nerve-wracking thing. That shoe bomber in 2001 failed because he literally sweated through his bomb. Obviously, looking out for anxiety is going to net you some false positives. Lots of people just hate flying. But it's easy to weed them out from the men planning to commit mass murder.
At Ben Gurion Airport, we get travelers from their car to their gate in 25 minutes. When was the last time that happened to you in an American airport? Probably never, because a dozen 747s worth of cranky travelers can't take their shoes and coats off, pull their laptops out of their luggage, and queue up for pat downs without chaos.
Security should happen in rings, so different teams can check each other's work and make sure no suicide bombers slip through. All it takes is one baggage handler ogling a passenger while she takes off her shoes and boom, Jeff the Terrorist gets through security free and clear.
But thanks to the layout of modern American airports, he doesn't even have to get through security. The TSA conveniently packs hundreds of travelers together in cramped security lines.
Terrorists love crowds because they can inflict the most harm that way. Anyone who watches the news knows that. So what does American airport security do? It gathers folks together in long lines BEFORE they've been scanned at all.
What really scares me when I'm in America is picking up my luggage. If you've ever picked someone up from a flight, you know there's no sort of scrutiny around who gets to walk in there. It's like the TSA thinks the terrorists have some sort of death grudge against planes. So if we can keep them from getting on one, they won't bother murdering a bunch of people clustered around baggage claim.
 Read the whole thing (yeah, it was hard not to just post it all). It's awesome.

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