WASHINGTON — Amid the uproar that airport screenings have become too intrusive, some Americans are now asking why the United States cannot do it like the Israelis.
Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., a critic of the Obama administration’s new screening methods, says the Transportation Security Administration should look at the process in 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 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 that U.S. officials put into place Nov. 1, said security analysts and the travelers who regularly show up at the 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 U.S. opposition 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 on the search for weapons — in contrast to the Israelis, who focus on finding terrorists — the United States is mounting a valuable and necessary last line of defense without undermining civil liberties. The multiethnic U.S. population 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, 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.’”
Baker was referring to several proposals for advanced screening that were scrapped during the Bush administration. 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.