What's so great about Israeli security?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 3 2011 3:38 PM

What's So Great About Israeli Security?

They don't take naked pictures of you, for one thing.

Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. Click image to expand.
Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday to study the Israeli airport security system, widely considered the best in the world. Terrorists haven't penetrated Ben Gurion International Airport's security since 1972. What makes Israeli airport security so great?

Profiling. With the exception of people on its terrorist watch list, the U.S. Transportation and Security Administration treats all travelers about the same. Everyone goes through the same machines and shows the same documents, only receiving additional checks if the regular procedures turn up a problem. Israeli security, by contrast, separates travelers into two groups before they ever get to an x-ray machine. All passengers waiting to check in speak to a polyglot agent. The agents, most of whom are female, ask a series of questions, looking for nerves or inconsistent statements. While the vast majority of travelers pass the question and answer session and have a pretty easy time going through security—there are no full-body scans, for example— between 2 percent and 5 percent of travelers get singled out for additional screening. The exact selection criteria aren't publicly available, but ethnicity is probably a consideration. (Former U.S. Health and Human Service Secretary Donna Shalala was interrogated in July, presumably because of her Lebanese heritage.)

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If you think being selected for additional screening in U.S. airports is tough, you obviously haven't faced an Israeli interrogator. Secondary screening can involve hours of questioning. Agents have been known to click through all of a traveler's digital photographs. Body searches are common, and agents usually take luggage apart one item at a time. Israeli agents confiscated all the luggage of Indiana University professor Heather Bradshaw and kept it for three days.

There's more to Israeli airport security than the secondary-screening selection process. Officials think of passengers as passing through a series of concentric circles, with increasing scrutiny as they get closer to boarding the plane. Agents also pay close attention to the parts of the airport that passengers don't frequent. They monitor the fences around the airport's perimeter with cameras at all times, and radar systems check for intrusions when the weather prevents the cameras from seeing. Security officials subject all vehicles to a weight sensor, a trunk x-ray, and an undercarriage scan.

Israeli researchers are developing technology that could ease racial profiling concerns, like innovative check-in kiosks to replace the human selectors. When a traveler steps up to the machine, it senses his body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, just as in a polygraph exam. At some point during the interaction, the kiosk presents a statement that would elicit a reaction from a would-be terrorist. It might instruct him to see an agent, or just remind the passenger that flight security is everyone's responsibility. If the flyer's vital signs shift, he would be subject to secondary screening. But while officials in the U.S., Europe, and Canada are considering the high-tech solution, Israeli officials haven't shown much interest. They think that security risks at Israeli airports require human profilers.

Civil rights concerns notwithstanding, Israeli security screeners can make a claim that their U.S. counterparts probably can't—they've actually foiled a terrorist plot. When Jordanian terrorist Nizar Hindawi planted a bomb on his girlfriend's bag before she boarded an El Al flight out of London's Heathrow airport in 1986, security agents working for the Israeli airline and using Israeli screening methods prevented the unwitting accomplice from flying.*

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Explainer thanks Rafi Sela of A.R. Challenges.

Clarification, Nov. 18, 2011: The original version of this article stated that Hindawi's girlfriend "tried to carry a bomb" onto the flight. The article also linked to a wikipedia entry about Nizar Hindawi, which explained that Hindawi placed the bomb in the woman's bag without her knowledge. The text of the article has been revised to make clear that the girlfriend did not know about the bomb. (Return to the revised sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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