What Can Israel Teach the U.S. About Airport Security?

For eight years, travelers in the United States getting ready to head to the airport have had to think hard about their footwear. Knowing that we'll be forced to remove our shoes to go through the X-ray machines, we make sure that they are an easily removed pair -- and that socks have been recently washed to prevent embarrassment. In warm weather, the ordeal can't be prevented by a clever choice to wear open sandals that expose the feet, as the TSA employees are under strict orders to closely examine even the strappiest shoes.

But Israelis heading for Ben-Gurion Airport need not worry about donning even the most complicated pair of lace-up boots, as passengers are never asked to take off their shoes as part of the security process.

Airport security in Israel is not about what's on your feet, or in your pockets, or -- god forbid -- in your underwear. It's about what's in your head.

While the Israeli security system is certainly not perfect, it is unlikely that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could have successfully boarded a plane without being detained, questioned in-depth, and hopefully caught -- even if his risk level hadn't been so clearly documented.

The secret of Israeli airport security doesn't just lie in super-sophisticated technology. Simply put, in Israel's airport, there are simply far more opportunities to get caught. As Rafi Sela, an expert on security, outlined for the Toronto Star, the security system at Ben-Gurion Airport is multi-layered, comprised of the following elements:

-- Roadside check: Drivers are stopped and asked who they are and where they came from. Even at that early stage, they are examined for behavioral giveaways that would mark them as suspicious.

-- Armed guards at the entrance to the terminal and the entrance of the airport give you the visual once-over as you enter. They can pull you aside for a random check.

-- Before you arrive at the main check-in counter, you stand in a security line where a young, clearly intelligent young man or woman examines your passport and ticket, looks straight into your eyes, and asks you about who you are, where you came from, where you are heading, who packed your luggage, and whether you are carrying any packages for anyone. If you offer an ambiguous answer, or raise any red flags by your behavior, the grilling continues, and the questions can frankly become irritatingly personal. My ire was up in an airport stop pre-9/11, when, to check whether I was in fact an American Jew, I was asked questions about my Bat Mitzvah. Suspicious behavior results in closer examinations.

-- Luggage is X-rayed before check-in. Suspicious items are put in blast-proof containers and moved away to a safe area. The airport doesn't shut down over a suspicious object.

-- Only then comes the walk through the X-ray machine (with your shoes on) and the check of your hand luggage. Yes, they are checking out your bags, but again, they are mainly checking you out. Nobody cares about your bottle of water, baby formula, moisturizer, nail scissors, or tweezers.

The journey through this process, with multiple stations at every stop, is usually fairly rapid for low-risk travelers, even at the height of holiday season.

So, as the Star points out, the Israeli way is both more efficient and more effective. So why not adopt it in the U.S.?

Atlantic journalist/blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who has flown in and out of Israel frequently, doesn't believe it will ever work in the United States:

The Israeli system, which features individual interviews with each traveler, also wouldn't work because, cow-like though we are, Americans are not going to stand for the invasive questioning that is the most crucial component of the Israeli system. Also, we'd have to show up at the airport five hours ahead of our flights to be processed at the more overcrowded American airports. I'm having a hard time imagining this happening.

But Goldberg just touches on the tip of the iceberg. In addition to its multi-layered approach, Israeli security is deeply dependent on a word that is anathema to the American ear.

Profiling.

Israeli security experts argue that their profiling is based on background and past behavior -- not on race.

"We are looking for behavior. We are looking for certain patterns in a person's background," security consultant Rafi Ron told CNN, explaining the practice in 2006.

But in reality, it's hard to tell the difference. While Europeans and Israeli Jews who have spent time in Arab countries hostile to Israel and known to contain terrorists are also intensively questioned -- the infamous Hindawi affair demonstrates why this is necessary -- the vast majority of those who fit the high-risk "behavioral profile" are, of course, Arabs.

Those who are clearly not security risks -- in Israel, that means Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews -- sail through the airport at record speed. Frequent business travelers can even have their fingerprints recorded and bypass much of the security apparatus.

The differentiation in treatment has caused social and legal controversy, even in a society as security conscious as Israel.

But it's not only the fear of a legal and political backlash that makes bringing Israeli standards to the U.S. problematic. The tremendous costs of doing so on such a massive scale is also a factor. Nowhere is that more clear than when it comes to the question of manpower. From the minute your car pulls into Ben-Gurion Airport, you not only know that you are under surveillance. You also know that you are being watched by trained, intelligent, and motivated young people. This contrasts with the often bored and frustrated low-wage workers who man the X-ray stations in the U.S. and who joke with their friends as they stare at the screens and wand the unhappy passengers.

Israel's universal army service offers a large pool of candidates for such jobs. The vast majority of security personnel at Ben-Gurion and at El Al counters across the world are students earning money to put themselves through school and build their resume. The El Al personnel working abroad are subsidized by the Israeli government.

Much creative thinking and funding would have to be applied to bring the TSA ranks in American airports to that level.

While mimicking Israeli security in detail may be impractical at the moment, there are certainly lessons to be learned, and Israeli consultants have been happy to teach them. Ron, working as a security consultant to the Miami and Boston airports in the wake of 9/11, has demonstrated that the principles of the Israeli approach of "get inside their heads, not inside their bags" can be used to improve security, as he told a Tampa newspaper.

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.''

Israelis won't settle for "a fair chance." But traditionally, in Israel, when it comes to the inevitable tension between civil liberties and national security, it's security that wins out, and legal challenges to airport profiling have been generally unsuccessful in changing the reality on the ground. This could change following Israel's Association for Civil Rights petitioning the Supreme Court to outlaw "racist, humiliating airport checks against Arab citizens" -- but the odds are slim.

The question is whether the time has come when a large and powerful democracy like the U.S. must take a page from the playbook of the small and vulnerable Israel.

Resistance to adopting the Israeli model in the U.S. is understandable. The idea of subjecting profiled airline passengers to Israeli-style intensive questioning in the U.S. may not seem pretty.

But then again, the idea of every airline passenger in the U.S. being physically searched as a potential crotch bomber is even more unappealing. Taking account of our footwear before flying is one thing. Being forced to contemplate our choice of underwear is quite another.