America is not Israel, but...

There are elements of the Jewish state's aviation security methodologies from which the US may glean innovative strategies.

January 9, 2011 22:31
4 minute read.
Ben-Gurion Airport departures hall.

airport security_311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Recently, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano met with top Israeli officials to discuss ongoing partnerships between the United States and Israel, threats from terrorism facing both nations and DHS’ commitment to working with Israel to expand operational and technological cooperation on homeland security issues.

Israel’s world-renowned aviation security strategies are often mentioned in America. However, despite their successes, the secretary summarily stated, “Israeli-style security won’t work for the US.”

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Citing glaring disparities between our nations, she pointed out that what has been effective for Israel with 7.3 million people, 11 million airline passengers and one major international airport, is not feasible for 310 million Americans, with 70 times the passenger load and 450 airports.”

As we struggle in the aftermath of whole body-imaging and pat-down hysteria, brought on by the lack of public education, engagement and a “touch my junk” video gone viral, some have been asking, what was the point of the secretary’s visit?

AS SOMEONE who has been engaged in counter-terrorism and airport security in the United States for many years, and who is now a Visiting Fellow at the IDC’s Institute of Counter-Terrorism, I believe I am both acquainted with the American needs and Israeli capabilities associated with this undertaking.

Despite the differences in size and scope, the State of Israel does one thing better than most; it prioritizes “the human element” on both sides of the counter-terrorism equation. America has crossed a threshold, when the mere mention of the “P-word” (profiling) in the English lexicon, invokes images of shredding the Constitution.

The fact is, behavior-based information obtained by Ben-Gurion Airport security personnel, which is indicative of inconsistencies or evasion, does not put security and civil liberties at odds, nor should it in the United States.

The Israeli airport interview process is facilitated by a staff of “well-trained” security personnel, who engage relentlessly in the fulfillment of their mission. They understand the enemy and the importance of getting it right every time. The “people” facilitate the success of the system.

The Israelis are second to none when it comes to using technology to augment security. In their mantra of “finding the bomber, instead of the bomb,” they have developed systems with the capacity to identify persons, through behavioral cues and responses, who may be attempting to pass through a layer of security. Inasmuch as the technology is enhancing the performance of their personnel, Israel’s prioritization of the human element, as an asset and potential adversary, continues to prove extraordinary.

We could also learn a lesson from Israel’s Trusted Traveler program. The secretary has promised to implement a biometrically based program for domestic travel. By creating a vetted population, which has met certain background parameters, TSA’s efforts toward becoming risk-based and intelligence-driven would be greatly enhanced and resources can be deployed appropriately. America’s current preferred border crossing system, Global Entry, is only available for returning international travelers.

No, America is not Israel. But, we do face a common and highly adaptive enemy. One who continues to demonstrate the capacity to aggregate and point their actors in one direction, via propaganda, technical assistance, broad strategic direction and occasional direct guidance. This is an antagonist who has repeatedly articulated the economic utility in attacking the aviation domain, an American industry that generates 1.9 million jobs and is forecast to create $507 billion annually in total economic activity. They will continue to do so, until they get it right.

Recent plots and al-Qaida’s latest directive of shifting to softer targets, utilizing less operators and employing more frequent attacks with shorter planning cycles (to evade our intelligence efforts), illustrates the dynamic capacity of their operations.

Israel’s resilience to years of similar tactics employed by Hizbullah and Hamas, continues to provide lessonslearned to us all.

We are facing a transnational threat. Education, information- sharing and intelligence analysis are critical to developing effective countermeasures around the globe. Although Israel operates at a very different passenger load and threat level, there are elements of its methodologies from which we may glean innovative strategies going forward. Secretary Napolitano’s efforts to engage in discussions, which generate information in the short-term, will return relationships that could endure a lifetime and may save lives.

The writer is a Visiting Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) International Institute of Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya, Israel. He is the Associate Director of the DHS National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) and adjunct professor of homeland security and public policy at the University of Southern California. He is also the Managing Director of Counter-Terrorism and Infrastructure Protection for the international security consulting firm TAL Global Corporation.

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