Thursday, November 18, 2010

Airline Security; Isreal Gets it Right, TSA Doesn't Get It

All the rhetoric we have been hearing from Homeland Security and their minions are more concerned with maintaining an obviously flawed, but financially lucrative direction. The inherent flaw in the America airport security system is it creates a false sense of security by relying on a narrowly focused (and imperfect) technology, that has limited human input and is always one step behind the terrorists. The only reasonable way to stop terrorists is to screen out the vast majority of obvious non-threat passengers, using background checks, so searches become threat based. You still screen 100% of the passengers, but only a small percentage actually get searched. There is perhaps nothing more absurd than the concept of random searches, which have no logical bases and is definitive of an incompetent government bureaucracy that has lost the trust of the people. Here you have bureaucrats that are so rigid and unyielding that they actually required pilots to be searched. Is there anyone that has forgotten that in the 911 attacks the weapons were the airliners themselves? What were the pilots going to do, take themselves hostage with a smuggled penknife? It is interesting to note, that in Israel the citizenry do not take these freedoms for granted as we do in the United States and still demand their government treat them with dignity and even intelligence.

50 years ago the Israelis faced the same safety issues America has been facing since 9/11. The first salvo was much the same as ours, but the reaction was much different. In his article, "The Israelification of Airports; High Security, Little Brother,” Cathal Kelly discusses the Israeli approach to airport security with Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy. "Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don't take s--- from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for — not for hours — but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, 'We're not going to do this. You're going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport."

What Israel devised was a 6-layer system that is hands down the world standard for safety. As you enter the parking lot, Israeli security agents contact you in your vehicle and simply ask each person two questions, “How are you? Where are you coming from?” But the security agents are not just being friendly; they are paying very close attention to your answer. If there is anything wrong with the way you answer you are detained and separated from your luggage. Further military service in Israel is compulsory, so every security person you talk with is not only highly trained in airport security, but also a veteran soldier. When any Israeli agent converses with you, they are looking you straight in the eye; something that while being bit unnerving, leaves no doubt that they are paying attention to everything you say and do.

Next you are directed to the airport building where there are armed guards at the entrance. These guards, as those in the parking lot are behavioural profiling. They look for someone in distress, someone who does not look right, someone that is displaying any one of a laundry list of behaviors they have been trained to watch out for. “At this point, some travelers will be randomly taken aside, and their person and their luggage run through a magnometer. ‘This is to see that you don't have heavy metals on you or something that looks suspicious,’ said Sela.”Once you are inside you go to the check-in counter. Passengers are staggered so they don’t bunch up (one of the biggest complaints of the current American system by security experts is the damage that could be done by a luggage bomb detonated amongst the hundreds of passengers that are often waiting in roped off blocks in the check-in lines). Here you asked a series of questions, “Who packed your luggage? Has it left your side?” Your luggage is moved to a specially deigned baggage area where it is scanned. “The screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive.”

The last check is for passengers and carry-on. But there are no conveyor belts, no body scanners, no enhanced pat downs. Just security officers watching you and scrutinizing your mood and behavior, "’… there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you,’ said Sela. ‘Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, or how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.’”

Once in the airport lounge it looks no different than any other airport. But there is a difference. Every employee from the Starbucks girl to the janitor are also trained in some form of behavioural profiling. If they see anything that doesn’t look right they are encouraged to report it; any one in the lounge, employee, passenger or security can lock down the airport; and unlike anywhere else, they are encouraged to do so. If anyone sees something that doesn’t looks right and they hit the shut down button, they are always praised, never degraded for being too paranoid.

So yes there is a better way to secure an airport than treat the passengers as if their Constitutional rights are suspended every time you get near an airplane. But there is another issue that is rarely addressed and that is competence. I have watched TSA workers go about their job and most are what you could call “professional” but none really appear competent. If anything occurs out of the ordinary (and I use the term loosely), it usually results in having to call a supervisor and then an administrator. In a recent incident made famous on YouTube a passenger, John Tyner opted out of the scanner and took exception to the enhanced pat down (who could have guessed that would ever happen?). The result was organizational idiocy were the police were called, one supervisor told him to leave the area, then an administrator was called who told Tyner he broke civil law for leaving and would be fined (Since TSA is not a law enforcement agency, all their actions are controlled through civil authority. Apparently there is a civil law that once a person has opted out of the full body scan, they must not leave the screening area without being screened in some manner. Since they have no law enforcement authority the TSA agents can’t detain or arrest anyone, all they can do is fine. The idea is to stop a terrorist from leaving the screening area for fear he will be discovered, but one has to wonder about the logic that an al Qaeda terrorist would actually stop for fear of being fined).

Michael J. Aguilar, chief of the TSA office in San Diego, later called a press conference to emphasize that Tyner was in a lot of trouble and assured everyone his actions would lead to prosecution and “civil penalties” of up to $11000. The next day however the head of the TSA John Pistole said John Tyner would not be fined, saying the agency is "trying to be sensitive to individuals issues and concerns," but added, "the bottom line is, everybody who gets on that flight has been properly screened." Unfortunately Pistole notion of "properly screened" is defined narrowly by his boss Janet Napolitano, who seems to have been bought and paid for by political corruption and conflict of interest that includes ex-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pushing the use of full body scanners in 2005 while the manufacturer Rapiscan became a client of his consulting Chertoff Group shortly after he retired in 2009.

The Israelis have shown us, and the world that safety can be achieved while preserving personal freedom and privacy. As I said before, the end result in America has been a complete lack of trust that our politicians are competent or has our best interest at heart; or even worst, that our government has become a separate entity, independent from the will of the people, who is either incapable of keeping up safe, or refuses to do so without us trading away some of our most basic human rights. Seal seemed to sum it up when he said, "Do you know why Israelis are so calm? We have brutal terror attacks on our civilians and still, life in Israel is pretty good. The reason is that people trust their defense forces, their police, their response teams and the security agencies. They know they're doing a good job. You can't say the same thing about Americans and Canadians. They don't trust anybody.”

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