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|Administration to Seek Balance in Airport Screening|
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|WASHINGTON — Amid the uproar that airport screening has become too intrusive, some Americans are now asking why the United States cannot do it like the Israelis.
Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida and a critic of the Obama administration’s new screening methods, says the Transportation Security Administration should look at Israel, which uses early detection techniques at airports. An editorial in The Washington Times last week praised El Al, the Israeli national airline, as employing the “smarter approach” of using “sophisticated intelligence analysis which allows them to predict which travelers constitute a possible threat and which do not.”
As it turns out, the security methods employed by Israel’s famous Shin Bet security service at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv are frequently stricter and more intrusive than the full-body scanners and pat-downs American officials put into place Nov. 1, said security analysts and the travelers who regularly show up at Ben-Gurion four hours before their flights for screening.
At Ben-Gurion, some passengers have been searched so thoroughly that they have had to walk through the terminals, the gates and up to the doors of their planes with no handbags, wallets or even shoes.
The Israeli approach highlights the difficult balance faced by the Obama administration as it tries to address terror threats without unduly alienating the people it is trying to protect. The Israeli system relies on steps that would be likely to provoke opposition in the United States on civil liberties grounds: collecting detailed information about passengers before they fly. Besides, Israel has only two airports and 50 flights a day, compared with 450 airports and thousands of daily flights in the United States.
The administration argues that by focusing at airports on the search for weapons — in contrast to the Israelis, who focus in airports on finding terrorists — the United States is mounting a valuable and necessary last line of defense without undermining civil liberties. The multiethnic population of the United States makes it more difficult here than in Israel to profile possible terrorists, experts say, leaving officials with little choice but to screen passengers carefully for illicit items.
“If you say at the highest level of generality that the American system is looking for weapons and the Israelis are looking for terrorists, obviously we would be better off looking for terrorists, because then we would spare ourselves the silly indignities we imposed on ourselves because of our civil liberties laws,” said Stewart Baker, the author of “Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism” and a former official with the Department of Homeland Security. “But we tried that, tried doing security checks on passengers, and a left-right coalition said, ‘You can’t trust the government with this.’ ”
Mr. Baker was referring to several proposals for advanced screening that were scrapped during the Bush administration after travel industry and civil liberties groups objected. One plan would have involved checking credit records and criminal histories, along with checking whether passengers were on terrorism watch lists. Based on results, each traveler would have been assigned a risk level. Those deemed dangerous would have been barred from flights.
Critics contended it was an invasion of privacy. The T.S.A. eventually found its way to the screening system it is using now, which searches for weapons instead of relying primarily on profiling people.
On Monday, administration officials said that they would try to iron out the kinks in the system in response to public concerns, but they maintained that the new system would be around as long as there were people seeking to blow up planes. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the government was “desperately” trying to balance privacy and security.
The T.S.A. administrator, John S. Pistole, released a public service announcement and video describing the new procedures in advance of the Thanksgiving travel week. Administration officials say that fewer than 3 percent of passengers are receiving pat-downs; people get them if their screening raises an alarm, or if they refuse the body scan.
Representative Mica said that the Israeli model worked because Israeli agents “try to detect behavior or people’s patterns” by asking them questions. Israeli officials say that any passenger trying to board El Al is subject to questions from security agents.
“Everybody gets asked, who you are, where are you traveling to,” one Israeli official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity because he did not want to speak publicly about the security measures. The agents asking the questions, he said, “are very well trained.”
“Depending on what you say,” he said, “they will put you through an additional screening.”
Mr. Baker, the security expert, said: “Israeli agents focus on the travelers’ country of origin, their profession, visas that are stamped in their passports, places they have visited, people they know and the color of their skin. If you say you’re a Renaissance art scholar, they’ll ask you if you know who Titian is.”
Mr. Mica maintained that the Israeli system was not profiling. “Someone is trained to do it with people who warrant further scrutiny,” he said.
But some travelers say they would rather go through a full body scan than the system at Ben-Gurion airport.
“My experience leaving Tel Aviv was by far and away the most unpleasant encounter I’ve ever had with airport security officials in the decade,” said Matthew Yglesias, a blogger with the Center for American Progress who said it took three hours last month for him to get from the initial security check at Ben-Gurion to the food court. “As best I could tell, things went pretty smoothly as long as you were Israeli, traveling with an Israeli, or traveling with some kind of well-established tour group.”
Mr. Yglesias was traveling with a group of journalists.
“The African-American woman in our group was taken off to be questioned. A bunch of us were told we couldn’t bring iPads on the plane,” he said. The Jewish member of his group “had the easiest time,” he said. “The black woman had the hardest time.”
|【 2011/6/6 7:36:47】 【 Print 】 【 Close window 】|
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