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Security expert: Get inside passengers' heads, not just their bags

A passenger surrenders a can of shaving gel at a checkpoint at Washington Dulles International Airport in August 2006 following new rules on liquids.

Associated Press (2006)

A passenger surrenders a can of shaving gel at a checkpoint at Washington Dulles International Airport in August 2006 following new rules on liquids.

In mid January, three weeks after a terrorist suspect boarded a flight for Detroit with explosives taped to his underwear, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport will start using "millimeter-wave'' body scanners on all U.S.-bound passengers.

"The introduction of these body scanners would certainly have helped in detecting that he was carrying something on his body,'' Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst said Wednesday.

Yes, it would have helped, just as it would have helped if all passengers had been required to take off their footwear before "shoe bomber'' Richard Reid tried to blow up a Miami-bound jet in 2001. Just as it would have helped if there had been limits on carry-on liquids before two dozen people were arrested in a 2006 London-based plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners using liquid explosives.

Instead, aviation officials seem to be in a perpetual state of catch-up, implementing stringent, after-the-fact airport security measures that result in screeners patting down even people in their 70s and 80s.

"I agree it's ridiculous when it is done blindly the way it is done today. It's a waste of time and resources,'' says Rafi Ron, a security consultant to Miami International and other airports.

"But at the same time, if you really run a professional program that identifies high-risk passengers, that high-risk passenger could be an old guy.''

It's an approach successfully used in Ron's native Israel.

The Jewish state is often at war with its Arab neighbors, but no plane from Ben Gurion International Airport has been hijacked or attacked in flight. That's because Israeli security relies heavily on human intelligence and the "profiling'' that civil libertarians elsewhere find so objectionable.

It starts at the entrance to the airport grounds, where cars driven by Israeli Jews are usually waved on. Those driven by Palestinians are generally pulled aside for careful inspection.

Inside the terminal, security personnel question every passenger, though some get more scrutiny than others.

"Obviously the system looks differently at a Palestinian who comes out of Gaza compared to a Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv,'' says Ron, a former security director at Ben Gurion.

Experience, though, has shown that ethnicity alone is not always a good indicator of who is or isn't a terrorist. In 1972, Japanese radicals stormed Ben Gurion, killing 24 people.

"You can even be an Israeli Jew and still end up at the far end of the spectrum in terms of your profile because we do have some extreme elements in Israel that we consider a risk,'' Ron says. "The issue here is not discrimination, the issue is to simply identify the risk correctly.''

One example: As a foreign journalist who often travels to the Palestinian territories, I get the third degree from Ben Gurion security. Where did I go? Where did I stay? Whom did I interview? Did anyone have access to my luggage?

Such questioning, which can last an hour or more, may seem repetitive and even rude, but it's designed to turn up inconsistencies that could show if the subject is lying. Body language is important, too — is the interviewee starting to sweat or glance nervously around?

This intense interrogation is followed by hand searches of purses and other carry-ons. But I've never had tweezers, nail clippers or even scissors confiscated.

Of course, this level of security is hardly practical anywhere but in a small country like Israel. On Wednesday, Ben Gurion had 95 departing flights compared with 250 for Tampa International — and TIA is just one of 450 commercial airports in the United States.

But since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ron has applied some of the lessons learned in Israel to airports in this country.

At Miami International and Boston's Logan Airport, law enforcement officers are trained to identify suspicious behaviors and engage passengers in "constructive conversations'' that can elicit valuable information about where a person has been, where he's going and what he might be up to.

Though no terrorists have been found at either airport, Ron says the program has led to the arrest of people who have "certain common denominators'' with terrorists such as traveling under false identities or concealing weapons or substances.

"This is a very good indication to us that the program actually works,'' he says, "and that when terrorists arrive there is a fair chance we'll be able to pick them up.''

Helping the police are thousands of airport employees including janitors, skycaps and ticket agents. "Since we are looking for irregular behavior,'' Ron says, "who knows better what is regular than an employee who spends most of the day and year in this location interacting with the public or at least witnessing people's behavior?''

Given the huge U.S. emphasis on technology to catch terrorists, Ron says important behavioral clues were ignored in the cases of the 2001 shoe bomber and the attempted Christmas Day attack by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose father had warned the CIA of his son's growing extremism.

That warning never found its way to other agencies. "A terrible mistake,'' Ron says. But he was encouraged by President Barack Obama's demand for a full investigation of what went wrong.

"Hopefully one of the things he's relating to is the human factor in our security program, whether on the intelligence level, at the airport or during the flight,'' Ron says. "We've had such a total reliance on technology and there are so many human factor aspects that have been neglected completely.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Security expert: Get inside passengers' heads, not just their bags 12/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 9:15pm]
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