Jan. 5, 2010— -- The best way to protect airplanes isn't with improved technology such as full-body scanners but by profiling and questioning passengers, some aviation security experts say.
But such a move is an extremely controversial one that opponents say would violate travelers' privacy and could unfairly target some passengers for more-intense screenings.
Isaac Yeffet, the former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al, says the only way to secure the skies is to employ highly-educated, well-trained agents to question passengers. Forget bomb-sniffing "puffers" or scanners that can see through passengers' clothes. Yeffet said that he has seen many terrorists outsmart airport security over the years, and as technology improves, so do the terrorists' methods.
"We are dealing with a sophisticated enemy who knows how to beat our technology," said Yeffet, who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants.
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He said that we have learned nothing from our past security breaches, including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Did we learn something?" he said. "We changed from FAA to TSA and guys with new uniforms."
The only group being punished, he said, is the American traveler who must now endure longer lines.
Yeffet said profiling isn't about singling out one ethnic group but about asking intelligent questions.
He told the story of an Irish woman several years ago who flew from London to Israel. She had fallen in love with a man, was pregnant with his baby and was flying there to meet his family. He packed her bags, including a gift for his family. Her suitcase cleared airport security without a problem, Yeffet said, but when El Al agents started to question her as part of their routine checks, something just didn't seem right.
Even though she had nothing to hide, they questioned the situation. An inspection of her luggage found 4 kilograms of explosives -- a bomb, planted by her lover, that airport security scanners had missed. She was so upset that this man would try to use her to kill everybody on the 747 that she gave the police all the information they needed to prosecute.
In another case, a German man was smuggling what he thought were drugs from Zurich to Israel. The luggage went through X-ray scans and nothing was found by airport security, Yeffet said.
But the man lost his composure when asked by El Al agent why – as somebody who lives in Germany -- he purchased his ticket to Israel in Switzerland.
Yeffet said the man was so focused on questions related to drugs that an unexpected question threw him for a loop and tipped them off. The bag didn't have drugs but explosives – and the man turned in the supposed drug dealers.
Terrorism Profiling: Better Than Any Scanner?
In both cases, Yeffet said, the Irish woman and the German man didn't fit the national or ethnic identity of the stereotypical profile of a terrorist wanting to take down an Israeli jet.
When hiring people to do profiling, Yeffet said, they must be qualified staff, "very well educated people" with at least a college education and fluent in English and at least one other language.
"We test them always. Anybody who fails is fired. We have no mercy because we are dealing with lives," Yeffet said. "The problem with the TSA is that they don't have experts, they don't have qualified people."
The Transportation Security Administration did not respond to requests for comment.
Such an increase in security would not only likely add to travelers' time but also cost the government and the flying public millions of dollars. Right now, TSA airport screener salaries start at about $25,000 a year. Hiring the highly-trained college graduates that Yeffet suggests would cost significantly more than that.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the lobbying and trade group for the travel industry, said that "it is no secret" that today's security procedures are not "as efficient and effective as travelers and our country demand."
Dow has called for a comprehensive look at all aspects of our airport security.
"There's not a magic bullet called profiling. There's not a magic bullet called body scanning. It's all the pieces have to come together: technology, canines, psychological and data sharing," he said. "When it comes to profiling, I think there are things that should have been done but that common sense has gotten in the way of."
Dow said that Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest plane on Christmas, bought a one-way ticket, paid cash and had no checked baggage.
"If that doesn't scream 'take another look' then I don't know what does," Dow said. "We should be profiling by the common-sense things that the experts know work, whether it's behavioral, or practices."
However, he warned that such moves need to be balanced with privacy concerns, speeding up the flying process and not scaring away millions of people who fly each year.
Terrorism Profiling: Better Than Any Scanner?
The American Civil Liberties Union questions if profiling, body scanners or any new security measure will make flying safer -- or would just make us feel better.
The key issue there is whether any measure that they take enhances security," said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington, D.C. "There is no doubt that any measure that might be adopted by the government now will reduce our individual freedoms."
Macleod-Ball said that with any new security measure, the benefits must be balanced with the loss of freedom.
"We would say that the tradeoff is generally not worth it primarily because we know there is an impact on civil liberties and privacy but we don't know whether in fact there is an effectiveness to these measures," he said.
Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport and now head of New Age Security Solutions, said that we can actually provide security with technology at checkpoints and baggage checks "doesn't seem to be working."
"The concept behind what they are doing right now has proven to fail us repeatedly," Ron said.
If we want to deliver the same level of check to 100 percent of passengers within a reasonable time period and cost, he said, then it will be a "relatively low level of search."
The only practical solution, he said, is to profile somebody based on their behavior.
Ron also emphasized that profiling should not be based on race or ethnicity.
For instance, he said that your gut instinct would be that a Palestinian or another Arab would attack Tel Aviv's airport.
However, in 1972 it was members of the Japanese Red Army who used machine guns to kill 24 people in the passenger arrival area.