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Psychology, not just technology needed for airport security

By Pierre Atlas

President Barack Obama is correct when he says that a "systemic failure" in security allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to get on a Detroit-bound airliner intent on blowing it up. Better inter-agency coordination and intelligence sharing might have kept the young Nigerian terrorist from boarding the plane in either Lagos or Amsterdam.

Beyond the "macro" questions of counterterrorism that have been raised by this failed attack, there is also the more mundane, micro-level question: short of strip-searching every passenger, how can we prevent another terrorist from getting past airport security with explosives sewn into his or her underwear?

After Richard Reid attempted to ignite explosives in his shoes in December 2001, everyone, regardless of how young or old, was required to remove their shoes and run them through the detection equipment at U.S. airports. Now, in response to Abdulmutallab's actions, there is talk of acquiring multimillion-dollar full-body scanners that can see through clothing, and/or physically searching every single passenger at airports. In other words, the response to this new threat might be to add more high-cost technology-placed in the hands of poorly paid and minimally trained TSA employees -- or to apply another time-consuming, one-size-fits-all policy that makes no relevant distinctions between passengers.

But these are not the only options available. Every time I've flown out of Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport to return to the United States, I have been struck by its unique security procedures. They are unlike anything I have experienced at an American airport. At Ben-Gurion, the bulwark of security is not technological, but human. Everyone first waits in a single line with all their luggage in tow. An English-speaking security agent interviews each passenger while looking him or her straight in the eye. The questions can be intrusive.

Here is a typical dialogue I have experienced at Ben-Gurion Airport:

Agent: "How long were you in Israel?"

Me: "Two weeks"

Agent: "Why were you in Israel?"

Me: "Sightseeing and to visit family."

Agent: "Where did you go? What are the names of your family in Israel, and where do they live?"

The questions can become even more specific and personal. "Are you Jewish? Are you a member of a synagogue in your town, and what is the name of the synagogue? Do you speak Hebrew? Where did you learn Hebrew? Say something in Hebrew."

The airport security agent is not taking notes on what I say, and is not interested in building a file on my background or my movements in the country. The purpose is not data collection, but to see if she can trip me up. With direct eye contact, she is looking for "tells" -- signs of nervousness or dishonesty. Even for a completely innocent traveler, this can be a stressful encounter, and the agent seems to understand that. Not all signs of nervousness are treated alike.

On one of my trips, I had also visited Jordan, and that provoked additional questioning. On another trip, when asked if my luggage had ever been out of my sight before coming to the airport, I answered honestly that it had been with the hotel concierge for a few hours. My passport was then tagged with a different-colored sticker and I was sent to the more intrusive baggage inspection station. My suitcases were carefully emptied and searched. I had been in Israel for an academic trip, and the baggage security agent flipped through my conference paper and all the books I was bringing back, asking me polite but pointed questions. Although the experience lasted less than five minutes, it was thorough -- and a bit intimidating.

Israel, used to dealing with terrorism on a regular basis, is at the forefront of security research and development. But it does not put all its eggs in the high-tech basket or treat all passengers alike. From my anecdotal experiences, it seems that the front line for Israel's airport security is its well-trained personnel, armed with the prerogative to ask brief but intrusive questions and closely observe the responses. How each passenger is dealt with all depends on how he or she responded to the initial questioning. Some passengers, including those who are "profiled" for specific reasons, have their luggage thoroughly inspected by airport security and might be held for additional questioning. Others are told to simply put their suitcases on the X-ray machine's conveyor belt and head to their gate. Ben-Gurion is arguably the most secure airport in the world, yet at no time have I ever had to remove my shoes there.

The Israeli model may not be completely applicable to the United States. Israel is a small country with only one international airport. Having agents trained in basic psychology and interviewing techniques assigned to every U.S. airport would be extremely expensive, although perhaps no more expensive than equipping each airport with new, multimillion-dollar machines.

There is also the question of privacy rights. How many Americans would be comfortable with TSA agents asking them personal questions while waiting in line? On the other hand, in response to the underwear bomb, we are now talking about full-body X-rays for all passengers. Having to undergo a brief "security triage" interview that is used to differentiate passengers might actually be less of a civil liberties infringement than the more hi-tech intrusions on all passengers currently being contemplated.

Since 9/11, we have seen how terrorist techniques evolve and adapt in response to new security measures. The shoe bomb was replaced by the underwear bomb. One day an explosive device might be ingested by a terrorist as the new way to avoid detection. But while the instruments of terror will continue to change, one thing will remain constant: the human element. Terrorists, regardless of how they are carrying their explosive devices, might betray their nervousness or some other "tell" under close personal scrutiny and questioning. The Israeli model may not be the complete answer for U.S. airport security. But at least it shows us that other models exist, and are effective.

© RealClearPolitics.com

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What is necessary, at least with regard to flights bound for America, is for the U.S. to pare down its intelligence and security agencies to just two instead of the seven or eight we have now that have their finger in the anti-terror pie. We need one domestic agency, one international agency, they have the same boss and they share the same computer system and data base.

They had every bit of information needed to stop the attempted bombing on Christmas Day, including a name, and still screwed it up because too many people have to but don't communicate.

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Since we have 2,000+ security lanes in the US alone (not to mention all the overseas embarkation points), the Isreali model is not a useful comparison. That said, I doubt the "crotchbomber" would have answered any direct questions about his previous and current travel plans without giving enough concern for a more thorough questioning and search which would have blown his mission.

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"Psychology" here is just a euphemism for profiling. OF COURSE profiling is necessary if we want to protect ourselves. All of the suicide bombers are are muslim, almost all are young, male, single, well-educated, and on a one-way mission to paradise.

To use the same ressources to investige a Norwegian grandma with family and a young, single, muslim male is insane.

Alas, our political correctnessdictates that we have to behave insanely.

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Hello, One way ticket, paid cash, no luggage, no passport, unless he was dressed in Giorgio Armoni and getting on his own jet, he is going nowhere. He got on the plane because no one wanted to raise a issue. Can not be accused of profiling so why bother. They need to use Psychology on the people who come up with these dumb policies.

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i'd like to see the stats on who the israelis do catch. everybody knows that security is going to be strict flying el al so you're not going to get any random bombers like this nigerian, most wouldn't even try which is why they have a good record. the thing is, if you really want to, there is always a way around security.

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The crotchbomber had a one-way ticket because he had a multiple-entry visa to the US (scary but true). Most people in Africa (and Tokyo for that matter) pay cash for tickets, that is meaningless in this context. Of course, he had a valid passport. The no luggage and entry/exit stamps to Yemen months earlier and the fact the he is a young muslim traveling alone, should be criteria that get him pulled aside for deeper questioning and a thorough screening.

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" i'd like to see the stats on who the israelis do catch. "

No El Al plane has been brought down by terrorists since the 70´s; that fact speak for itself.

That El Al is THE dream target for every single jihadist bomber out there surely does not need to be pointed out to you.

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The sad truth is, the eventual way to secure airports is to go down the path of the former USSR. For those not familiar to that era, watch the movie, "Firefox" w/ Clint Eastwood. Security at its height, but it also was a "totalitarian state". Great movie, great fighter.

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In addition, there is also a responsibility of political leaders to do the unthinkable: try to understand why these terrorists do what they do. Understand why is there so much hatred in the world today. And also, most importantly, come up the with solutions!

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You don't mess with the Israelis. Great country and live long and prosper. THeir methods work well.

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" In addition, there is also a responsibility of political leaders to do the unthinkable: try to understand why these terrorists do what they do. "

Oh, they are trying alright -- but modern PC does not allow them to adress the ideology of islamic terrorism.

Instead, Obama runs around the world, thinking that apologizing left right and center will get the jihad to stop. Insane.

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FYI, it was NOT a one-way ticket. Reports have established that the underwear bomber had a round-trip ticket.

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Why is ...profiled...in quotation marks?

Interrogations, body searches...they are all invasions of privacy. Would I rather have someone searching my pockets or my mind? Personally, I think I would rather undergo a full-body scan than a 'security triage interview'. Walking through a detector doesn't really bother me but being questioned suspiciously leaves me feeling uneasy.

But I do agree that if you want to find the terrorists and criminals, your best best is to use a combination of profiling, questioning and physical searches. There will always be people who out-smart the security systems so the problem just escalates itself: Smarter criminals leads to airports putting in more security which the leads to smarter criminals...At some point, they just have to say, this is enough.

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" Smarter criminals "

The suicide bombers who blow up themselves in airplanes are not "criminals". A criminal wants to gain material profit, not to kill himself.

The suicide bombers are willing to give up their life on behalf of their deep belief. Tragic (especially for us?) Yes. Dangerous? Yes. Criminal? No. If you address the jihad as a crime, you never get anywhere.

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Have you seen the people at security in the States? Training them to use psychology? give me a break. Affirmative action has resulted in the dumbest workforce possible working at the security lines, the unions have resulted in the laziest. I am a middle aged white teacher from Canada and I got grilled to death in Amsterdam two months ago. Why? I was there on a business trip with my coworker. There is a time when you have to say the hell with PC. Every guy out there trying to bring down planes has dark hair and a last name that definitely doesn't sound like Smith or Jones. Pull every single one of those guys out of the line, pat them down, strip search them. White grandmas from Fargo aren't really a danger yet every time I travel I see one of them getting their suitcase pulled apart by two security agents at some airport in the states. Absolutely ridiculous.

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I even have to take my flip flops off coming from winter country without socks on as if I made them out of plastic explosives, and not carrying a lighter or anything. Eventually a woman is going to try this and she will be nick named, the "Panty Bomber" or the "Bra Bomber" Talk about za bomb!

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Interrogations, body searches...they are all invasions of privacy. Would I rather have someone searching my pockets or my mind? Personally, I think I would rather undergo a full-body scan than a 'security triage interview'. Walking through a detector doesn't really bother me but being questioned suspiciously leaves me feeling uneasy.

You'd get used to it, I assure you. At my job I need go throught this security process once every couple years where they do a background check, a few days of questioning, and tox-screening. The first time it's weird but after that you can do it almost mechanically.

Any measure that makes airports safer has my vote so long as A) It doesn't make the airport more likely to lose my luggage and B) They don't stop serving drinks in first class. Nothing wipes out the flight jitters faster than whiskey.

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There are 4 witnesses who stated that he DID NOT Have a Passport at the gate.

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Well if we're going to discuss the use of psychology, we might want to go where the research tells us. And what the research tells us is that we can't accurately tell when someone is lying to us due to nervous behavior, liars are no more nervous of jittery than someone telling the truth. Furthermore studies have shown that judges, lawyers, detectives and psychologists are no better at telling a liar then random chance. So lets throw out that myth propagated by popular fiction.

However, the research does tell us that the best way to detect a liar is by the language they use, which they will try to distance themselves from the lie. But you will have to establish a baseline from which to judge. I assume that the Israeli Security office is using the questions to test this. There may also be a decrease in bodily gestures (think, hand motions) due to the liar having to spend that extra energy thinking out the lie.

So to rely on a person to look for signs or tells of a liar may not actually be at all more reliable than having someone walk though a machine. When security has to be 100% effective and a terrorist only has to be correct .01% of the time (arbitrary numbers 1 out of 1000), eventually you will have someone slip past security. Law of Large Numbers will eventually win out. I also have a BA in Psychology, I don't think that would supply me with the knowledge to be able to judge a liar or not, especially seeing as PhD Psychologists are no better at it than chance.

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The world can not be run by gangsters anymore that seek to enslave mankind for a few criminals that seek total enslavement of mankind. DO not go for the phony attacks and phony reasons for these scanners, The can use the scanners to collect your electromagnetic field and use satellites to track everyone the goes through these scanners.

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I am a middle aged white teacher from Canada and I got grilled to death in Amsterdam two months ago.

It must have been shocking to be a victim of racial profiling for the first time in your life (unlike many others). I can't imagine what set them off. Your name isn't Timothy McVeigh by any chance, is it?

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Maybe the author had been lucky to enjoy some short interviews, but the reality from my personal and other people's experience is that the minimum time is about half an hour. I once even had the pleasure to have a 1.5h talk with some of those cute ladies, which do those interviews, while at the same time they were announcing endless last calls for Mr Gonemad. And no, I was not late and had been there at the airport the usual 3-4h before departure, spending most of the time waiting for the security checks.

Ben Gurion Airport is quite small compared to other international airports and they employ lots of staff for these interviews. Thinking about larger airports, it seems like it would become real fun for the passengers...

There is one point the author is certainly right: just throwing more technology at the problem usually won't solve anything. But it doesn't mean they don't use technology at Ben Gurion like e.g. explosive detectors, which I saw there long time before I saw it at any other airport.

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