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Israeli-style air security may head west

PETER ROBISON / BLOOMBERG NEWS | August 27 2006

Eleanor Schwartz is 78 and has trouble walking. Yet every time the Neponsit, N.Y., resident flies on El Al Israel Airlines Ltd., security agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport go through her medications and question her for several minutes.

"I've been to Israel 44 times in the last 20 years, but they still check us very carefully," Schwartz says.

Such scrutiny may no longer be limited to El Al. In the aftermath of this month's U.K. terror arrests, the airline known for intensive passenger screening and on-board anti-missile defenses is becoming a model for Western aviation authorities. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration says it wants to boost training in behavior-identification and interrogation techniques, and European aviation officials say they plan to share more data on passengers among allies.

El Al's methods, previously rejected by airlines and civil libertarians as costly, intrusive and corrosive to a free society, now are winning support because of public fear that the $25 billion spent in the U.S. and Europe on aviation security since Sept. 11 hasn't gone far enough to protect passengers.

"It can't just be technology," says Gerry Leone, the former U.S. prosecutor who handled the 2002 case in Boston against "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. "There have to be observations made and people who are well-trained to know what combinations of things should lead to increased scrutiny."

Opponents including Muslim groups and the American Civil Liberties Union are wary of expanding government powers or opening the door to racial profiling, while airlines want to avoid significant delays and higher costs. Also, some El Al measures may not work on a larger scale.

Still, to a degree not seen since 2001, the foiled U.K. plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners is forcing Western nations to decide what realistically can be done to secure travel. Some fliers say it is time to trade privacy for more security.

"I wouldn't have an issue with a 10-to-15-minute, very personal interview," says Dave Taylor, 44, who has flown 195,000 miles this year as marketing chief for LANDesk Software, based in Salt Lake City. "I'd feel very comfortable knowing everybody on the plane has answered the same questions."

In the U.S., TSA spokeswoman Jennifer Peppin says the agency has been experimenting since June 2003 with its first behavior-based screening programs. Surveillance teams question people at a dozen airports, including Boston's Logan International and Washington's Dulles International.

The gold standard for safety is El Al, which hasn't had a hijacking since 1968. The airline declines to discuss specific security measures. El Al Chairman Israel Borovich said Aug. 10 on Bloomberg TV that Israel's compulsory military service means El Al employees are better prepared for security-related tasks.

"Many of our employees have to do reserve duty," he said. "Many of our pilots are serving in the military. That's part of the way of life in Israel."

Internal security

Security is coordinated by the Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, which runs a criminal background check on each passenger, says Isaac Yeffet, who headed El Al's global security from 1977 to 1984 and now runs a security consulting firm in Cliffside Park, N.J. Security agents at the airport scan the data before questioning passengers, Yeffet says.

"They say by the time you get to the airport they've got you in the computer," says Rita Perlmutter, 72, a retired librarian from Boynton Beach, Fla., who is used to showing El Al security agents in the U.S. and Israel pictures of her Israeli grandchildren when questioned about her twice-yearly visits.

Borovich estimated El Al's security bill at $100 million a year, which amounts to $76.92 per trip by its 1.3 million passengers. Half is paid by the Israeli government.

By contrast, the TSA spent $4.58 billion on aviation security, or just $6.21 per trip by 737 million passengers, in fiscal 2005.

Book an El Al flight, and it's easy to see where the money goes. Travelers might be stopped four times by different security officers asking where they were born, where they stayed and the names of any new friends they made. Officers might even flip through a travel diary or make an international phone call for corroboration. El Al uses its own security agents and scanning machines at airports in the U.S. and Europe, not just Israel.

Perlmutter says she once was questioned further after visiting Morocco, Turkey and Jordan.

Sometimes, the interviewers compare notes to check for inconsistencies. They are trained to spot characteristics that make someone suspect, including the purchase of tickets outside one's home city.

Foreigners always get more scrutiny than Israeli citizens, says Anat Naim, 25, who worked as a screener at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv for two years.

'Pull everything out'

"All foreign travelers are investigated and go through strict luggage inspection," she says. "If somebody's really suspicious, you pull everything and his mother out of the suitcase."

Bags are run through scanners that check for potentially explosive chemicals.

Sometimes, luggage is cut open, with the airline offering reimbursement if necessary.

Then, there are the in-flight precautions: Each flight has an armed undercover air marshal; two bulletproof cockpit doors, one of which must be closed at all times; and anti-missile systems.

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. has strengthened cockpit doors on planes and has awarded at least $90 million in contracts to test anti-missile systems. Equipping all 6,800 U.S. commercial airliners with such missile defenses would cost $11 billion, according to a 2005 Rand Corp. study.

Israel developed its multilayered system after deciding that no single technology is guaranteed to stop a terrorist, says Rafi Rahav, a security consultant who worked for the Shin Bet and now runs a private investigation company in Ra'anana, Israel.

Questioning has at times succeeded where detection machines haven't, including the 1986 arrest in London of a pregnant Irishwoman about to board an El Al flight while unknowingly carrying plastic explosives planted by her Jordanian-born boyfriend.

"She was innocent and she looked it, too — but the interrogation was the key issue," Rahav says.

In the U.S., small teams of TSA screeners walk around Logan and Dulles, among others, trying to find people who look nervous. The program — dubbed Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT — was first used by state police at Logan.

They consulted with psychiatrists to develop a behavioral profile. In addition to obvious things like someone sweating excessively on a cool day, the teams look for people whose facial expressions are deemed to be hiding an emotion. The teams haven't caught any terrorists though they have detained several people with outstanding criminal warrants, TSA spokeswoman Peppin says.

The agency wants to expand the program and replace contractors who collect identification at airport checkpoints with staff trained in interrogation and behavior identification, Peppin says.

U.K. authorities have charged eight people with conspiracy to murder and held four others on related charges this month in connection with the alleged plot to blow up planes using liquid explosives in drink containers.

Racial profiling

Tim Wuerfel, president of the German pilots union Vereinigung Cockpit and a 737 pilot for Deutsche Lufthansa AG, says he doubts a liquids ban is enough.

"There are so many ways of bringing explosives on board," he says. "You'd have to focus on every aspect of a traveler's life, from electronics to who knows what. Then the question is whether we want to live that way."

Indeed, critics say stepped-up security might lead to racial profiling that can result in discrimination against an entire class of individuals.

"None of us would be safe," says Samina Sundas, founder of American Muslim Voice, a nonprofit group in Newark, Calif.

The ACLU sued Logan's operator, the Massachusetts Port Authority, after officers questioned the leader of the ACLU's Campaign Against Racial Profiling in 2003 and asked him to leave the airport. The leader, King Downing, is black.

"People need to be very skeptical before we adopt yet further incursions into basic rights," says Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's top lobbyist in Washington.

Airlines also worry about the waiting time and expense of additional security. An interviewing system as extensive as El Al's would require significant upgrades in the qualifications, training and pay of U.S. screeners. At El Al, screeners are often university graduates and speak two or three languages.

In the U.S., screeners start at $23,600 a year and can be high-school dropouts.

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral James Loy, who ran the TSA in 2002 and 2003, says he sat in on training sessions with Israeli screeners to see if their model would work in the U.S. While it might help, he couldn't imagine rolling it out across the U.S.

"I literally just could not have the same level of confidence in 541 airports worth of interviewers as opposed to two," he says.

An El Al-style security system might cripple the much larger U.S. airline industry. The U.S. fleet of 6,800 commercial airliners is almost 200 times bigger than El Al's 35.

Yeffet, the former El Al security chief, says a system like the Israeli carrier's undoubtedly would cost more. Yet he says it could be run efficiently, noting that El Al operates frequently between New York and Tel Aviv, among other cities.

Congress will debate airline security funding when it returns next month. The Senate approved a bill in July giving the TSA $6.1 billion in fiscal 2007, while the House awarded $6.3 billion. The larger figure would be a 7 percent increase.

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