As part of El Al's techniques, employees ask passengers a flurry of seemingly random questions before they get to the ticket counter, looking for holes in their stories or deception. If trained properly, U.S. airlines would do well in emulating the practice for security's sake.
A former security director for Israeli state airline El Al says the manner in which the United States’ Transportation and Security Administration carries out behavior-detection activities at U.S. airports is “worthless.” This criticism comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office study that found that such behavioral techniques as practiced by the TSA were little better than “chance” in rooting out terrorists.
Isaac Yeffet, a security consultant who served as security director of El Al from 1977 to 1984 and later was deputy director of security operations for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, tells Skift he is a strong proponent of behavior detection, but faults how the TSA is implementing it.
“They do it like less than amateurs, Yeffet says. “They don’t hire the right people and they don’t train them well.”
Yeffet says the TSA’s behavior detection officers spend four days in a classroom instead of lengthier instruction and being tested in the field, and that the TSA should be hiring former detectives and people with high-qualifty security experience to fill these roles.
The GAO cited a study that it reviewed that found that there was little difference in performance between former law enforcement personnel and those without such experience in detecting threats by behavioral means.
The TSA’s plainclothes behavior detection officers are schooled on looking for 94 indicators of deception, fear and stress as they wander around U.S. airports.
“Just to take guys and spend $200 million and to put them in a classroom” is inadequate, Yeffet says.
The TSA program in its rough outlines is modeled after El Al’s security techniques.
Yeffet says El Al hires former military personnel and others with security experience, trains them on the job for three weeks with experienced security personnel, and “then we test them.”
“We give them test after test, and there’s no mercy,” Yeffet says. “You fail the test, you go home. I don’t care who it is.”
“If you don’t know how to treat anyone in a test, it means you don’t know how to treat a man in real time,” he says, adding that hundreds of passengers’ lives could be at stake.
Yeffet says if the TSA behavior detection officers fail a test, in some cases they continue to work and can take the test again.
Hiring qualified people, giving them proper training and testing are the keys to success, Yeffet says.
“We are not geniuses, believe me,” Yeffet says, referring to Israeli security. “We know what questions to ask. Simple questions.”
The GAO report (embedded below) called for the defunding of the SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) program, and yesterday TSA administrator John Pistole defended it, saying cutting off funding would be a mistake.
Yeffet says Congress shouldn’t eliminate the $200 million that goes to SPOT annually, but should hire qualified people to run the program.
He scoffs at the notion that although behavioral detection techniques have proven a success in Israel, they don’t translate to a much larger U.S.
He said the basic procedures at U.S. and Israeli airports are similar.
When Yeffet was El Al’s security director, the behavioral detection techniques didn’t muck up operations.
“We didn’t cause one flight delay,” Yeffet says, adding that someone under suspicion wouldn’t board and the flight could proceed on time.
Yeffet argues that the U.S. should give behavioral detection another try, albeit with a revamped program.
Says Yeffet: “If you fail and see it is mission impossible, at least you tried and saw it doesn’t work.”
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Photo credit: A man is screened with a backscatter x-ray machine as travellers go through a TSA security checkpoint in terminal 4 at LAX, Los Angeles International Airport, in Los Angeles May 2, 2011. Danny Moloshok / Reuters