Special Report

Doing Security the Israeli Way

When's the last time TSA looked anyone in the eye?

By 1.15.10

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"Let's do things the way the Israelis do." That's the latest buzzword in airline security. It's nice to hear the Israelis being praised for something, but if we don't understand what the Israelis do, we're just going to be adding another layer of bureaucracy to an already overloaded system

CNN spent an hour interviewing Isaac Yeffet, former head of El Al security, for example, and all it came away with is that the Israelis interview everyone on line while they're waiting to go through security, that the security personnel speak at least two languages, and that the system costs a lot of money. (Hey, let's order up a lot of Rosetta Stones!) According to the Wall Street Journal, "the secret to [the Israelis'] successful airport security is not labor-intensive checkpoints, but a screening system that is frowned upon in many other countries: ethnic profiling."

Can't you just see the ACLU licking its chops at that one? Many people think it was the undisclosed settlement won by the "six flying Imams" against US Airways last October for being "racially profiled" for their erratic behavior at Minneapolis Airport that set the stage for the Christmas bomber incident.

But the Israeli security system is not based on dual language skills or racial and ethnic profiling. The heart of the Israeli strategy is the idea that the most sophisticated scanner in the world is an intelligent, alert human being and that the most important terrorist behavior database is the shared assumptions, memories and life learning we call "common sense." It revolves around a simple principle that no one in the Homeland Security Department does not yet seem capable of grasping: "Look at people, not things."

I've been through Ben Gurion Airport many, many times. As a female Caucasian with a Jewish last name, you'd think I wouldn't have any trouble with "racial and ethnic profiling." Yet I've been questioned extensively more than once. In every instance, it had nothing to do with what I was carrying or whether I was a little darker than usual. It had to do with my behavior.

Israeli strategy is built on multiple face-to-face contacts between passengers and airport personnel.  A mile or so away, on the road leading to the terminals you encounter a structure that resembles a classic American highway toll plaza. It's actually a checkpoint. A young soldier approaches your vehicle, bends close to the window, peers in, and asks a few questions, innocuous things like "How're you doing? Where are you going today?" The substance of the answers (i.e. "I'm going to Casablanca") is far less important than what psychologists call your "affect" -- your demeanor, whether your gaze is steady or if it ping-pongs around, whether you are sweating heavily, whether your clothes seem appropriate to the surroundings or just subtly...well...off.

As Rafi Sela an Israeli security consultant told the Toronto Star, "The whole time, they are looking into your eyes -- which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not." Certainly other factors, demographic factors -- stuff other people would call "profiling" -- does affect this encounter.

Early one morning I was held for slightly longer at this checkpoint because I arrived at the airport in a hired car service driven by a young male Israeli Arab. There were several more questions than the times I had driven up by myself or in a car driven by a non-Arab Israeli. On this occasion the soldiers also opened the trunk and poked around a bit among the luggage. Since the driver and I were forthcoming, cooperative, calm, and direct we were soon sent on our way. Another time when I received much more scrutiny was a day when -- I admit -- I was upset about a few things. They checked my passport and wanted to know why I kept flying back and forth to England. I told them I was visiting my brother, but it took a long time to convince them I had no bad intentions.

The second screening occurs while you wait on line to check your baggage. You are then approached by a uniformed young person (they are usually Israeli reservists) and "chatted with" again, the same sort of "where are you going?" stuff -- even such friendly questions as, "Did you enjoy your trip to Israel? Where do you live in the United States? Do you go to a synagogue there?"

People are often taken aback by the synagogue question but it is not an effort to identify Jews; rather it is simply a conversational gambit to prolong the contact, a way to get in close and feel the vibes. As Sela explains, "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. Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes. And that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."

The Israelis would be crazy to rely solely on passenger twitchiness, so all kinds of other elements get thrown into the mix: I observed one youngish European male get extra attention because he looked substantially different than his passport picture. (He had had a haircut and shaved.) The Israelis generally wanted to know more about why I had a visa stamp from Bahrain. Michael Totten, a journalist who specializes in Middle East reporting, was questioned longer than average because his passport is full of visa stamps from countries known to export terror. "Does anyone in Lebanon know you're here?" he says he's usually asked. He was also asked if he's ever met with anyone from Hezbollah.

Many will scoff at the use of such direct questions since they assume they are easy to lie about, but lying well is extremely difficult, especially when you are faced with an earnest young woman (most of the Israeli soldiers on airport duty are young women) who seems to have all the time in the world to look searchingly into your eyes. Travelers I know are constantly guffawing at the "futility" of the "did you pack your own bags?" question but under the right circumstances a simple, direct question like this can be a powerful tool.  Bringing up bags with someone who has a guilty conscience about his bags is going to produce wisps of affect, observable data.

In 1986 the simple question, "Did you pack your bags yourself?" ended up saving hundreds of lives in the following incident, as reported by Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy in the Washingtonian (hat tip to Daniel Pipes):

"No," a 32-year-old Irish lady bound to Israel for the first time in her life told El Al screeners at Heathrow airport.

And so the screeners pressed on.

"What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?" they asked Ann-Marie Doreen Murphy, a chambermaid at London's Park Lane Hilton Hotel.

"For a vacation," she answered.

"Are you married?"

"No."

"Traveling alone?"

"Yes."

"Is this your first trip abroad?"

"Yes."

"Do you have relatives in Israel?"

"No."

"Are you going to meet someone in Israel?"

"No.

"Has your vacation been planned for a long time?"

"No."

"Where will you stay while you're in Israel?"

"The Tel Aviv Hilton."

"How much money do you have with you?"

"Fifty pounds."

Since the Hilton at that time cost at least £70 a night, she was then asked, "Do you have a credit card?"

"Oh, yes," she replied, and showed them a government ID used for cashing checks.

That was one oddity too many. Murphy's bag was sent for hand searching -- where it was discovered to have a false bottom filled with the plasticine explosive Semtex, enough to bring down a plane.

Miss Murphy had been an unwitting mule of a far left Palestinian who met her while she was working as a chamber maid at the Hilton, romanced her, and given her a one way ticket to Israel where he told her they would get married.

Yet can you imagine this exchange occurring at most American airports where the typical TSA employee simply mumbles, "Did you pack your own bags?"

Maybe I'm wrong, but everything I know about American government in the 21st century tells me that even if we try to adopt Israeli methods, we're going to get it wrong. It will end up like those "psy-ops" efforts in Iraq, where Arabic-speaking soldiers stand there reading questions off a checklist rather than engaging the population in casual or even earnest conversation. All our so-called "reforms" and "outreach" in everything from policing to intelligence gathering to government hiring have been about banning the intuitive, the hunch. 

When Richard Reid climbed aboard a trans-Atlantic flight with a British passport issued in Belgium, no luggage, a one-way ticket and a bomb in his shoe, we made everybody take off their shoes. Now that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has gotten past security with no luggage, a one-way ticket and a bomb in his underpants, we're going to check everybody's underpants with body scanners. But no scanner ever invented can look into another person's mind. Only when we start talking to passengers will be able to get into their heads. And that is where the real danger lies.

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About the Author

Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (Encounter, 2005).