Former Israeli Airline Security Chief: U.S. Needs to Profile Air Passengers

Edwin Mora | November 16, 2010 | 9:01pm EST
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El Al Boeing 777-200 (Wikipedia Commons)

( - As criticism mounts over the use of full-body scanners and physical pat-downs at U.S. airports, the former security director for Israel’s national airline told that airline security in America is an “illusion,” and that the United States should adopt El Al’s passenger profiling approach to ensure safety.

According to Isaac Yeffet, the former security chief for El Al Israel Airlines, the United States should adopt El Al’s security approach of ensuring that every passenger is interviewed by a well-trained agent before check-in, a move that involves profiling passengers, which he said is not discriminatory.

El Al is considered by most security analysts as the most secure airline in the world because of its track-record in deterring hijackings and terror plots. The airline has been free of terrorist attacks for about 30 years and it has experienced only one hijacking in its history. Global Traveler magazine has named El Al as number one in its Best Airline for Security for the last three years in a row.

Nonetheless, critics of American airliners adopting El Al’s security approach say it would violate passengers’ civil rights by allowing some passengers to be more intensely scrutinized than others.

Yeffet said that U.S. airliners should implement “exactly the same [security] system” as El Al.

“Yes, profiling,” he said. “Profiling is not that I am choosing that I want to interview them. We don’t have discrimination [at El Al]. Every passenger--I don’t care who he or she is--has to be interviewed by security. We have to be polite. We know how to ask questions.”

“The TSA [Transportation Safety Administration in USA] wants to tell me we now have security in this country--this is an illusion,” he said. “It’s not security. It’s about time that we are proactive and reactive. In this country we fear reactive, we don’t do anything to be proactive.”

When asked if he thought the use of full-body scanners created an illusion of security, Yeffet said, "Yes,  they are a small part of the entire system that you use to check a passenger if he is suspicious."

Isaac Yeffet, former chief of security for El Al Israel Airlines. (Photo courtesy

The TSA, a Department of Homeland Security agency, has put in place a procedure for a physical pat-down of airline passengers as part of an overall increase in security and has also ramped-up the use electronic (x-ray) body scanners at airports.

The TSA has decided that if a passenger opts out of going through the body scanner or if the scanner shows something suspicious, a security officer will do a pat-down.

Reacting to TSA’s move to step-up air security, Yeffet said, “Technology in general can never replace a qualified and well-trained human being.”

“We have to use body search and body scanners only against seriously suspicious passengers,” he said.

Yeffet indicated that it is unnecessary to search innocent people, which he said make up about 99.9 percent of air travelers.

Instead, security should be focused on determining whether an individual is suspicious by intensively interviewing the person before he or she boards the plane.

“We at El Al have used the hand/body search for so many years, but we did it only to suspicious passengers that were interviewed by us,” said Yeffet. “We asked the questions and we were able to determine that there was something wrong with a passenger.”

Yeffet pointed out that El Al’s security personnel are highly trained in reading people’s physical actions as indicators of behavior.

“If you are bona fide, you have no problems answering [questions]” he said. “If you want to hide from us, we see the physical changes in your face--suddenly you raise your voice, suddenly your Adam’s apple jumps up and down, you’re nervous. Then we ask, 'Why are you nervous? I'm doing it for your safety sir or Ma'am.’”

Using that approach, “You can see how fast and easy we survive, and we put the hand on the right people that are trying to blow up an aircraft or to commit suicide,” he said. 

According to Yeffet, unless they are suspicious, “most passengers” cooperate with El Al’s security approach of interviewing every passenger.

The former El Al security chief criticized the TSA’s decision to allow passengers to opt out of being body scanned and endure a pat-down instead, saying that this option makes body scanners irrelevant.

Yeffet also said that technology, such as X-ray machines, already failed to deter the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, the Sept. 11 attacks, and the attempted Christmas Day underwear bomber, among other terrorists, by allowing them to go through security check points with illicit materials.

 "I don’t need a scanner,” said Yeffet. “I don’t mean to insult anyone. There is what is called hand search. We take you to a special room where you are interviewed by security experts. If we notice any suspicion, we search you from the head to the toe. We won’t leave one piece on your body that we do not do a hand search on. Why do we have to spend millions of dollars on these body scanners?”

At El Al, Yeffet formulated the airline's total security system, developing passenger- profiling and  passenger-screening programs and training security personnel.

Yeffet is also a retired senior intelligence director for the Israeli Secret Service, where he was responsible for the security of all Israeli embassies, consulates and delegations around the world.

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