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Ilan Chaim ("Illusion of Security," March 29) claimed that security in US airports offers inadequate protection against potential terror attacks. Thanks to a former head of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, Raphael "Rafi" Ron, there has been a noticeable improvement in security at several airports in the US - Boston's Logan Airport, in particular, where two of the hijacked planes took off on their way to strike at the Twin Towers in Manhattan on September 11, 2001.
Israeli-style security methods were first introduced to the US after those attacks when Logan Airport hired Ron's company, New Age Security Solutions, as its consultant to restructure its security system, styling it on Ben-Gurion Airport.
Ron pointed out that until recently, airports in the US paid too much attention to baggage screening rather than observing the behavior of passengers. His company introduced the Behavior Pattern Recognition (BPR) program to Logan. Its goal is to detect suspicious behavior and respond to it by singling out passengers displaying certain types of behavior for lengthy questioning.
Uniformed officers in and around security checkpoints scan passengers for involuntary physical and psychological reactions that may signal stress, fear or deception. Officers also may engage the passenger in casual conversation to observe his response. If there are enough suspicious signs, the passenger may then be sent to secondary screening, or questioning by the police.
"We provide the trainees with a thorough understanding of terrorist behavior. It is difficult for people to disguise the fact they are under tremendous stress, knowing that they are going to kill themselves and a lot of people around them in a short amount of time, and this affects their behavior," said Ron.
SPEAKING BEFORE the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security Affairs in 2005, Ron said "In reference to the human factor, I would like to point out that the Achilles heel of the suicide terrorist is his behavior. A person intending to commit an extreme act of violence, in most cases for the first time in his/her life, as well as to terminate his own life, is most likely not to behave like the ordinary people around him going about their daily routines."
Security officials at Ben-Gurion have employed a version of the BPR technique for years, but because of the size and scale of major airports in the States it would be impossible to interview every passenger in terms of time, cost, legal and cultural issues.
As a result of its success, the program has been introduced to other major airports in the US, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. In recent years a BPR awareness program for airport employees was launched at Miami airport.
Logan also adopted Ben-Gurion's system of multilayered security which includes random vehicle checks on routes leading to the airport, specially trained sniffer dogs for checking for explosives and specially trained units of officers armed with automatic weapons who patrol the terminals.
Ron emphasized the importance of protecting the perimeter of the airport citing an incident at New York's J.F. Kennedy Airport, where, a few years after the September 11 attack, a baggage screening system was installed costing some $200 million. Three young men in a boat were fishing in the bay when their motor stalled. They drifted to the shoreline of the airport, landed unnoticed and walked up the tarmac unhindered to the area of the control tower and aircraft filled with fuel and passengers which could have turned into a major disaster had the three been armed terrorists.
New technologies are being tested all the time. Closed circuit television cameras have been installed at most security checkpoints at Logan. Facial recognition technology is being tested along with document verification technology.
In 2006 the Transport Security Administration (TSA) invested in a pilot scheme using Cognito scanners at McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee, developed by an Israeli company, Suspect Detection Systems. The scanner is a polygraph-like device that interviews a suspect electronically. The suspect is asked computer-generated questions and the process measures reactions that supposedly identify potential terrorists in as little as three minutes from their biometric responses to key questions.
According to Shabtai Shoval, CEO of Suspect Detection Systems, TSA was satisfied with the results but deployment awaits a final decision based on civil rights issues.
Gradually, with the increased threat of terror, airport authorities in the US and the West are becoming aware that the security system at Ben-Gurion is the most effective against potential terror attacks and are using it as a model on which to base their own programs.
The writer is a correspondent for publications in the Jane's Information Group and writes about airport and homeland security issues.