To stop terror, track everyone in U.S.
The charging of 11 British citizens for plotting to blow up airliners over the Atlantic should be warning enough that the conflict in the Middle East is coming our way again. And we cannot count on uncovering the next try. There is a bottomless pool of young European Muslims filled with rage. We must adapt faster than they do.
When it comes to aviation security, we need to learn from a country that hasn't had a hijacking since 1968, Israel. The reason isn't a secret: The Israelis know who boards their planes before they board them.
A couple of years ago, I was flying from Tel Aviv to Beirut. Because there are no direct flights, I had to buy a one-way ticket to Amman, Jordan, and then, in Amman, a ticket to Beirut. That was enough to throw up a red flag. Security pulled me aside. They asked me where I'd stayed and called the hotel to make sure I was telling the truth. But what really surprised me was when I figured out the airport's computers interfaced with Israeli police computers. Instantly, the young woman behind the monitor pulled up my file: all previous travel to Israel, ex-CIA, my books. Everything.
In Israel, that security web doesn't end at the airport. Everyone carries some form of government-issued ID - and authorities ask for it repeatedly. There's no such thing as falling off the grid.
The United States, on the other hand, has no clue who is in this country - let alone who is boarding our airplanes. Twelve million undocumented aliens are proof enough of that. Travel agents in the Middle East can hook you up with smugglers to get you across the Mexican border and into the U.S. Download an ID off the Internet, and you can fly almost anywhere you want to.
Of course, had they wanted to get into the U.S., the indicted British citizens wouldn't even have needed to go to the trouble of sneaking across a border. With a British passport, you can get on a plane to the U.S. without a visa. Which makes you wonder, had these men tried to launch their attacks from the U.S., would the FBI - which in many cases still works from paper files - have caught them? I know it will make Americans' skin crawl to think about instituting the kind of security grid and pervasive profiling the Israelis use. But we have no choice. We must make compromises.
At a minimum, we should:
1. Demand that every foreigner apply for a visa before he boards a U.S.-bound plane, giving the State Department, CIA and FBI a chance to trace him.
2. Give the FBI computers that interface seamlessly with Homeland Security Department and CIA computers, airline reservation systems and the police.
3. Document everyone in this country, whether guest workers or Americans. That means a new, serious national identity card.
Before you start screaming fascism, remember: Israel is still a democracy with a free press. Unless we ensure that people cannot fall off the grid so easily in America, there will be another attack - and after it, we will risk popular outrage that will endanger all of our rights.
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