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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Trying the Israeli approach to airline security in the US

I never told you all my last airline security story from the US.

For a couple of years now, I have been drinking large quantities of water. The water fills me up so I eat less and therefore it keeps my weight from going up. This past Sunday, when I was leaving Boston, I took a one-gallon plastic bottle to the airport with me. I drank the water until about an hour or so before the flight was scheduled, and then headed down the security ramp with it. When I got to the first set of guards, I said, "we have two choices. You can let me take this with me and I will finish it before I get on the plane, or I can give it to you as a gift." They said that they cannot do either of the above, and that I can't go in with it and they would have to throw it out. (I never got an answer to why they are allowed to sell drinks - in bottles - at the boarding area. In Toronto, they were somewhat more consistent, if not equally ridiculous, and insisted on pouring the drinks into cups). When they agreed with me that it was ridiculous, but those were the rules, I asked when the government would let them look for terrorists instead of looking for things. One of the ladies looked at me very seriously, and said "we don't joke about terrorists here. I was on duty here on 9/11." I told her I was very sorry (two of the four planes that were hijacked took off from Boston's Logan Airport in case you have forgotten).

This may all be about to change. The JPost is reporting that a new Israeli machine may help screeners at airports. Hopefully it won't be banned because it 'discriminates' against Muslims. And there are many other changes afoot too.
Of the visible changes to airline security in the past five years, most have been "irrational, wasteful and pointless," according to Patrick Smith, a long-time airline pilot and author of a popular column on air travel for salon.com. The "senseless confiscation of pointy objects," he argues, has contributed little to preventing another world-changing disaster.

Shabtai Shoval, president and founder of Suspect Detection Systems in Tel Aviv, goes a step further.

"I don't believe the September 11 model has even been addressed at all," he says. "I mean, let's look at it: These guys entered the country a year before their attack; they had no real weapons to speak of; they used their own identities, not fake ones. Has anything been done since then that could prevent an attack from such people? No! To this day there is not a single tool, applied on an industrial scale, which even pretends to deal with a September 11-like problem."

The real danger, both Smith and Shoval agree, lies in the authorities' Sisyphean chase after the last item used to try to take down an airplane.

"Regardless of how many hobby knives and shampoo bottles we confiscate at the X-ray machine, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane," says Smith. "The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials; we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur."

In other words, airplanes are still susceptible to attack because security agents expend too much energy searching for bombs rather than bombers.

"The Western concept of searching for weapons is fundamentally flawed," Shoval states definitively. "If a person has the intention to carry out an attack, then the means is secondary. Someone who wants to carry out an attack will figure out a way to do it, whether it's with one thing or with another. The person is what is important; the weapon is marginal. In fact, the person is the weapon!"

How to locate people willing to turn themselves into weapons before they get a chance to do so has been the challenge since September 11. Suspect Detection Systems does it with an extremely sophisticated machine called Cogito, sort of a five-minute polygraph booth that Shoval expects to have up and running in Israel and in North America in 2007. The system, using complicated algorithms that constantly recalibrate the interrogation process, identifies people who react suspiciously to certain coded questions.

"It won't make things easier for passengers," Shoval says, "but it'll keep them alive."

RAFI RON, former head of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, has been using a simpler form of Israeli know-how at Logan Airport in Boston, from which two of the four hijacked planes used in the September 11 attacks originated.

Ron's Behavior Pattern Recognition program is based on the interrogation methods developed by the Shin Bet and El Al for Israeli airline security - a vaunted and nearly impenetrable approach that, nonetheless, has taken a long time to catch on with the rest of the world.

"For the last four and a half years, the Israeli concept of aviation security was not widely accepted and adopted," says Ron. "The natural tendency of the US authorities is to assume that technology can provide a solution for almost anything, so the main effort was focused on implementing technological solutions. But the understanding that this is not working well enough is leading many people in government to recognize the value of the Israeli approach."

In the Israeli approach, he explains, technology supports people. "In America, that's backward. In other words, here the role of people is just to operate machines. We in Israel trust our human ability to make decisions, and trust in the idea of training security employees well and providing them with the authority to make decisions. In the US, though, it seems like the goal is to limit the decision-making factor to a minimum."

While the much-maligned US Transportation Security Administration has trained more than 43,000 agents, Ron has brought other airport employees into the loop as well, so they can alert authorities to suspicious behavior. They are a valuable security resource that has been neglected, he says, with detrimental consequences.

"One of the things we discovered was that many employees suffered from lack of confidence about what to look for and what to report. The tendency to let somebody else report something is very strong... Something that in Israel seems so natural - to see something and respond to it - needs to be learned here."

To counter terrorists who have dedicated themselves to thinking outside the box, Ron has used very Israeli improvisational skills - as in the case of the clam diggers.

He explains that Logan is surrounded by water on three sides and clam diggers have always worked the airport's perimeter.

Rather than treat the clam diggers as a security threat, Ron's team turned them into an asset.

"They agreed to provide us with some pertinent information, and as a result we provided them with ID badges that allowed them to be around the area, and gave them walkie-talkies to report suspicious activity. So what we gained with the cost of a few walkie-talkies and a few classes of training is a continuous presence around the airport for most hours of the day."

After turning the security concept upside down at Logan Airport, Ron exported his BPR program to other locales as well. It is not just about teaching security personnel to identify signs of stress and nervousness that point to criminal intent, but about turning weaknesses into strengths.


THAT ISN'T to say, however, that America is on the verge of adopting a fully Israeli approach. To understand why, first consider the layers of Israel's system.


"Profiling is not [so simple as] saying: in Israel, if you're Palestinian you're suspected of being tied to terrorist groups," he continues.

A prime example is the 1986 case of Anne Murphy, a pregnant young Irish woman who was caught before her flight from London to Tel Aviv with a bomb in her luggage. Because Murphy was unaware that her Jordanian fianc had hidden the explosives in her bag, Heathrow security did not suspect her. El Al security, however, discovered that Murphy had been told to lie about her bags, and soon discovered the bomb in a secret compartment.

Twenty years later, the West still lacks that kind of preparedness.

"What we have developed is a solution that falls short of the Israeli solution," Ron admits.

But considering the dangers that still exist, and the billions of dollars that most agree have not sufficiently addressed those dangers, implementing a solution that more closely resembles the Israeli one may not be far off.

One of the first Israeli measures to be adopted following the September 11 attacks was to reinforce airplanes' cockpit doors to prevent hijackings. It has taken longer to implement other elements of the Israeli security system, but another piece of the puzzle is added all the time.

"At the end of the day, more and more people realize they won't be able to avoid using such methods," Ron believes. "From my interaction with government people here - and I have a lot of it - I see that these ideas are sinking in."
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