Philosophical Differences

Captain Sully makes the argument that the main defense against airliner terrorism is to know who gets on the plane. The TSA, on the other hand, is focused on controlling what gets on the plane — liquids, metals, powders — while being relatively indifferent to the backgrounds of the passengers, attention to which would of course be profiling. Here are two videos which describe the relative approaches.


Sullenberger argues that the TSA is throwing away information by mindlessly applying its mechanical procedures to all and sundry. Airline pilots, some of whom are already allowed to carry a gun into the cockpit for its defense, and who are in possession of what is effectively a guided missile with a multi-ton fuel warhead, are screened for butter knives. Something is wrong with this picture, he says. But the TSA doesn’t think so.

TSA maintains, for example, that “pat downs would have caught the underwear bomber.” Why? Because it would have detected the “thing” — the bomb. But this explanation elides the far bigger failure. The TSA had no information about the “person.” And the person was sending out a signal bigger than a radio tower.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab mused about killing infidels on the Internet. MI5 identified his radical connections while he was a student in London. Britain put him on a “watch list.” The Yemenis suspected that he had trained with al-Qaeda. “Abdulmutallab’s father made a report to two CIA officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19 regarding his son’s ‘extreme religious views.'” Nobody interviewed him before he boarded the flight.


And TSA thinks a pat-down is the solution to the problem. Maybe. But maybe the mass screening approach is fundamentally flawed. While some degree of physical airport security and routine examination is necessary, what appears to be lacking is some coherent way to apply human intelligence and perception to the problem of who is allowed to board. To put Captain Sully and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab through a mechanical winnow and expect effective screening may be the wrong approach to security. But it is perfect political correctness.

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Who gets on


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What gets on

While not neglecting physical security, the Israeli airline El Al focuses on precisely the factor Captain Sully described: the person flying. The passengers are interrogated by trained personnel who are monitoring body language and reactions. This is the El Al “mind scanner.” Israel Insider explains:

Upon arrival, travelers are subjected to rigorous and time-consuming questioning. While passengers are asked perfunctory questions like — “Who packed your bags?” and “Do you have any weapons?” — inspectors are really looking for travelers giving evasive answers or hiding information. Passengers can be interrogated separately by three different screeners.

By questioning passengers, guards can quickly spot those who appear nervous, Leo Gleser, a former El Al security officer and head of security consulting firm ISDS recently told The Associated Press. Gleser said passengers are profiled — while most Israeli Jews quickly pass through security inspection, Arabs and certain foreigners are singled out for intense grilling.


In some ways the El Al system is the complete philosophical opposite of the TSA approach.Whereas El Al uses a complex profiling system supplemented by intelligence resources, U.S. airport security throws the signals emanating from the passengers away, lest they be accused of exactly what the Israelis do, which is distinguish between people based on their behavior, background and past.

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