What American airport security can learn from Israel's behavioral profiling system.
12:00 AM, Sep 1, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THE DISCOVERY AND INTERCEPTION of the London air plots was a reminder that, while our intelligence capabilities have improved since September 11, 2001, our airport-security apparatus remains antiquated. Had the terrorists executed their plan, they would have had a high probability of success. Airport security cannot possibly hope to stop similar terrorist operations in the future unless it changes dramatically.
Two options lie before us. The first and more disruptive course is to take commercial carriers out of the baggage business. Passenger tickets would include travelers and the clothes on their backs--no luggage, no carry-ons. In theory, this would lower ticket prices. Passengers could then use that savings to ship their bags ahead of them. (It's not as crazy as it sounds; some people already use FedEx for their luggage.) Today, it would cost you about $120 to send a 40-pound suitcase from a home in Philadelphia to a hotel in Los Angeles by second-day air. This price would almost certainly fall if luggage shipping became big business.
The second option is more practical, although just as radical: adopting the Israeli model of airport security. The Israelis are generally regarded as having the safest air travel in the world because, instead of searching for weapons, they use profiling to search for terrorists.
It isn't as controversial as it sounds. We're talking behavioral profiling here, not racial profiling. Israeli-style profiling first came to the United States after September 11, when Boston's Logan International Airport hired Rafi Ron as a security consultant. Before joining New Age Security Solutions, Ron had been director of security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, which has now gone more than 30 years without a serious terrorist incident.
There are differences between Israel and America. Ben Gurion, for instance, handles 6 million to 10 million passengers per year. Logan handles 25 million to 30 million. And the United States has more than 400 commercial airports. But despite the difference in scale, the principles of the Israeli program translate surprisingly well.
"Terrorists are far from being perfect. They are people, they are human beings, just like us, and they do a lot of mistakes," Ron recently told NPR. The system Ron brought to Logan identifies terrorists by focusing on their behavior. As he explained to U.S. News & World Report, "Passengers with illegitimate, violent agendas don't act normally."
Take, for example, the 9/11 hijackers. As Transportation Security Administration analyst Carl Maccario told USA Today, when you watch the tape of the three 9/11 hijackers going through the Dulles security lines, you notice that none of them makes eye contact with security personnel. "They all looked away," says Maccario, "and had their heads down."
In 2002, Ron helped Logan institute the "behavior-pattern recognition" program, or BPR. Uniformed and plainclothes security forces look for behavior that is odd or out of the ordinary. They look for profuse sweat, stiff torsos, clenched fists, quavering Adam's apples, fidgeting, avoidance of authorities, and other markers. When an individual raises suspicion, he or she is approached for what is called a "targeted conversation."
The targeted conversation is a series of friendly questions designed to set the passenger at ease, or the terrorist off-guard. An interviewer at Logan might ask, "What did you see in Boston?"--and then follow up by asking, "Oh, you've been sightseeing. What did you like best?" Questions are progressive in order to verify answers. At the end of the interview, the agent either wishes passengers a good trip and sends them on their way, or initiates additional scrutiny.
These are not interrogations. As Ron explained recently, "We believe that 99.9999 percent of the people that will be approached would probably end up as legitimate people, and they are not terrorists at the end of the day. So, first of all, they have to be treated respectfully and not like criminals. Secondly, we strongly believe that treating them in a friendly manner will also be very important in recruiting their cooperation, and their cooperation is critical for the success of the process."
Targeted conversations work. In 1986, Anne-Marie Murphy, a pregnant, 32-year-old Irish lass, was on her way to board a London flight to Israel, where she was to marry her Arab fiance. After passing through several security checks, she was stopped for a targeted conversation by Israeli security because she stuck out: Pregnant women do not often travel long distances alone. Authorities became more interested in her because of the evasive answers she gave. Turns out, she had a bomb in her carry-on bag.
In 1999, the Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was caught because of evasive answers he gave to a Customs official at a Washington state port. According to the journal Homeland Security, targeted conversations at Logan International have resulted in dozens of arrests of criminals, who exhibit many of the same behavioral tics as terrorists.
Naturally, the ACLU has its Pavlovian response, filing a lawsuit against Logan, which charges that BPR is unconstitutional because it necessarily involves racial and ethnic profiling.
But this fear-mongering misses the point exactly. As Ron explained to the journal Transportation Security: "Speaking from a security point of view, it would be professionally stupid to divert attention from non-Arab people. For example, the worst attack on Ben Gurion was carried out by Japanese in 1972. If we focus on ethnic groups, we will miss what the enemy already understands: Using a non-Arab person to carry out an attack might succeed." Behavioral profiling succeeds precisely because it isn't racial profiling.
The success of the BPR pilot program at Logan prompted the TSA to adopt it under the moniker SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Technique), and it is now in effect at a dozen American airports. In the coming months, TSA will seek to expand it greatly. Despite carping from the expected quarters, they should.
Our safety depends upon it.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the August 27, 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.