Thursday, March 10, 2011

Israel Security Is real. TSA is not.

Fifteen Hours ago I went through security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. As I entered the airport, I was interviewed by a 20-something female who spoke perfect English, Hebrew and, no doubt a couple other languages. First she carefully checked my facial features - glancing back and forth three time - while holding my passport photo at the same elevation as my face. She asked me, by name, how I was doing, and she watched my face as I answered. I suppose if I didn’t react with familiarity to my own name I was to be quickly yanked from the line. I passed the test. 

She asked me questions about who I was traveling with, where I’d been, and if I had been responsible for my suitcase the entire time. Once satisfied, she motioned me over to an x-ray machine with a conveyor belt. A 20-something young man took my bag and labeled it, he scanned the bar code on the label and sent me to another line.

At that checkpoint, I took my suitcase to a countertop that had a permanent lectern of frosted glass elevated on stainless tubing. The lectern held touch screen displays left and right like an open book. As I approached my bag tag was scanned and the image produced by the x-ray machine was displayed after a couple finger-taps on the screen. Another 20-something female asked me to open my suitcase and I complied. She checked the screen and oriented the suitcase to the image. The dialog went something like this-

Her: (She picks a package out from between some clothes I had packed around it) What’s in here?
Me: A bowl.
Her: Where did you get it?
Me: I bought it in the Galilee, in Tabgha.
Her: Did you pack your suitcase yourself?
Me: Yes.
Her: Did anyone give you anything as a gift?
Me: No.
Her: Did you have your suitcase in your control the whole time you were in Israel?
Me: Yes.
Her: What is in these paper bags?
Me: Those are olive wood carvings.
Her: Where did you get them?
Me: Bethlehem.
Her: Did you buy other things?
Me: Yes.
Her: What did you buy?
Me: More of the same. Small items, mostly - souvenirs.

Her: Okay, you can close your bag.

What else do they do at Ben Gurion? They profile. Another group of caucasian Americans who had an Asian-American leader saw him pulled aside and interviewed for a half hour. A woman who left Israel a few days before her husband was interviewed alone, in a private room, by two men - one of whom was armed with an automatic weapon. She was repeatedly asked where he was, who he was with, what Arabs he knew, who his friends were in Israel and then she was asked the same questions over and over.

They use spies. There are people who walk around as though travelers, sitting at gates, watching faces and listening to conversations, who never leave the airport. I have seen them myself at JFK. After several hours I realized that some of the people I had noted who were meandering though the crowds waiting for flights to Israel were disappearing into a secure room where for just a moment, I saw several workers looking through suitcases. It was in a room with one-way glass and a combination of lighting and reflection allowed me to see for just a couple seconds. But it was clear as a bell what was going on.

But, there’s no pat down. There’s no radiation. No shoes come off, no computers come out of their cases, jackets are sent through the x-ray, but no belts come off. There’s a walk-through metal detector. And there are more questions at passport control.

It’s intelligent, respectful, and it works.

On the other hand, I was required to change terminals at JFK and just 12 hours after going through Israeli security, I went through TSA security. It might as well have been another planet, the differences were so extreme.

TSA eyes were not scanning me, my face, my demeanor. They were concentrating on what they’ve been trained to look at - paperwork, screens and images - processes. Am I putting things in trays that should go through the conveyor trayless? Yeah, that’ll help spot a terrorist. One of my traveling companions - a grandfatherly white man - was patted down. Ridiculous. All incidents have been caused by dark skinned, young Muslim men - none by 60-year old white German-American grandfathers. What you see in our airports is not security - it’s politics.

I had a plastic bag with two pounds of Dead Sea mud in an Army green Alice Pack that I carried on my back. The Israeli’s didn’t care - but the Americans missed it. It’s a liquid, a colloid, a prohibited soupy, viscous chemical mix, and they never even saw it. I know why, and if I wanted to transport an explosive, I know how it could be done now. Essentially, it slipped through because there’s no passion in the US for finding and outsmarting the terrorists - TSA just follows orders and uses no intuitive processes - because the TSA doesn’t really believe there are people who want to kill us.

That’s why we’ve had several terrorist incidents on our airplanes in just the past few years and why TSA has never caught a terrorist. The Israeli record is spotless.