Real airport security — by Spartacus *UPDATED*

Sometimes, a reader leaves a comment that is too good not to elevate to post status.  This time, it was Spartacus, writing in response to my question about real ways (not stupid, embarrassing, intrusive ways) to improve airport security:


A childhood friend of mine got married in the Tel Aviv area in 2002. By happy coincidence, the wedding date fell squarely in the middle of my one-and-only European vacation so far, so catching one more flight over to the other end of the Med was a no-brainer. Pricewise, it made the most sense to Chunnel over to Paris and round-trip from there, where there were two options: Air France or El Al. About the same price, so toward which was I more favorably disposed, ideologically speaking? Duh. El Al it was.

Got to the airport in Paris way early, like you’re supposed to for international flights, and went to check in. The ticket agent said something about going over somewhere to answer some questions or something. Questions? OK, sure, whatever. A trim, young, friendly, and utterly charming security gal appeared from out of nowhere, led me in my confusion over to a little kiosk, and began to ask me questions. All kinds of questions, and all very enjoyably and conversationally asked. Where was I from? What did I do for a living? Why was I travelling to Israel? What did I plan to see while there? Where had I been on my vacation so far? How did I get from Point A to Point B? And from B to C? What did I see while in B? What was most enjoyable about C? Is the food good there? Oh, and how did I get from A to B again? And if I wanted to get from B to D, why did I go through C on Mode X and then switch to Mode Y when it would have been faster and cheaper just to go direct by Mode Z? (“Dang,” I thought, “I spent two months planning this vacation, and she’s right! Why didn’t I think of that?”). Oh, and how is the food in C again? Classic interrogation techniques, not unlikely learned in the IDF, and flawlessly performed by a very quick-witted security professional.

In retrospect, it all made sense. My profile: young, single, male, non-Jewish, non-Israeli, no previous flights on El Al, and travelling alone. So, yeah, they naturally wanted to talk to me. The Q&A actually lasted about 80 minutes — a fact I completely missed until looking at my watch later. Between the friendly conversational tone, the fast pace, and her crystal-blue eyes… [sigh]… it seemed like about five minutes. When we were done, she escorted me back to a security room where I could see the last stages of the examination of my backpack: 35mm film rolls were being taken out of the plastic cannisters, X-rayed, and carefully put back in; my neatly folded and rolled underwear was being neatly re-rolled exactly as it had been; and so on. No cubic centimeter of my pack had been left unexamined. But the examination of the pack was unnecessary, since by the time I got on that flight, El Al knew everything that was in my mind and in my heart.

Security-wise, the flight to Tel Aviv was uneventful until we were almost there. You know how they now ban people from lining up outside the restroom in the front? Well, I was almost all the way in the back, in between the two aisles, and a bunch of guys started gathering all around. Real Orthodox-looking types. Since we were almost there, I was beginning to wonder if they couldn’t just hold it until we landed. I was startled nearly out of my seat when they all suddenly burst out in some Hebrew song. So they weren’t really waiting for the restroom after all! I still don’t know what they were singing, but I think it was something like, “Paise be to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! We will soon aquire the localizer signal to ILS Runway 27 and begin our pre-landing checklist!” (But coming from the guy who thought they were all going to the restroom, you might want to take that with a grain of salt.) It was interesting and different, which is cool.

My friend successfully got married, and about a week later, I was back at the airport. Just for good measure, they had me spend another very enjoyable 80 minutes of Q&A with another very attractive security gal. After being released to the departure gate, I looked out the big plate-glass window. Airplanes shifted busily around the tarmac as the pinkish glow of the coming dawn enveloped the entire scene. “Beautiful,” I thought, as I pulled out my camera. About 3.6 seconds later, another very attractive security gal quietly appeared from out of nowhere (yes, this was becoming a recurrent theme) and gently informed me that no pictures were allowed in the terminal. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know.” But it made sense. And it showed once again that they didn’t miss a thing.

Back at Heathrow a few days later, I went up to the United counter to check in for my flight back to the States. The ticket agent, who fit all of the negative stereotypes of a DMV worker, followed the United Airlines security screening procedure — she pulled out a small card, from which she read two questions: “Are you a terr… terr… terr… Oh, whatever… Do you have any bombs with you today?” Not especially looking up to register my responses to these questions, she gave me my ticket. And the security procedure which had bothered me not in the least on my way over to England now, in comparison, made me fear for my life.

I would fly El Al again almost anytime, anywhere… maybe even Point A to Point A, just for the heck of it.

UPDATE:  This is a good companion piece to Spartacus’ El Al post.

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  • jj

    Interesting the way they do that, isn’t it?  They’re not totally slick, it’s pretty obvious what they’re up to, and when they ask the same question for the fourth time (in somewhat different words) in hopes of tripping out – perhaps – a different answer it can even become a bit grating, but it’s still not bad.  And I’ll tell you something else: you as a young, single, American male did not get the blue eyes by accident, either.  Some years ago when I went El Al I didn’t get the blue eyes, I got the amazing legs, wielded by an expert in crossing them!  The point is to give you something else to think about a bit, keep you a little bit distracted and a little bit off guard, leading to a closer approach to not thinking about your answer, but just answering.

  • Spartacus

    Mrs. Bookworm — Yikes, I’m truly humbled.

    jj — I wouldn’t describe it as “still not bad” in my case. Yes, they were doing a job, but if they weren’t genuinely friendly as well, it was close enough that I couldn’t tell the difference.

  • Ymarsakar

    “Oh, and how did I get from A to B again?”

    The use of repetition is a common interrogation tactic to see if someone is lying by detecting slight variances or inconsistencies in their story.

    “Just for good measure, they had me spend another very enjoyable 80 minutes of Q&A with another very attractive security gal.”

    Females are noticeably underestimated by most males and thus they have an easier time getting you to talk. It’s a genetic inheritance from how males evolved to compete with males, females with females, but males and females didn’t directly (different supply, different demand) compete thus had no reason to fight each other directly.

    You won’t see this in America any time soon. Not because we lack trained interrogators. There are a whole load of them in GitMO right now working on Arabs and Afghans. SSG Dave of noted fame here also did some interrogation work in his military tours. No, you won’t see it in America because the Left’s alliance with Islam will ensure that CAIR gets to advise and advise the FBI and TSA on security and monitoring programs. As they already do now.

    If there a solution that exists to create prosperity and justice, you can bet the Left will destroy that solution intentionally. Not due to a misguided intention to do good. Not due to a mistake. Not due to a difference of opinion. Intentonally.

  • Ymarsakar

    “Yes, they were doing a job, but if they weren’t genuinely friendly as well, it was close enough that I couldn’t tell the difference.”
    They’re focused in on you. Most people hear something you say, and you can tell sometimes, but they either aren’t listening or they are thinking of something else. They are distracted, tense, worried, thinking about something else unrelated to you. You can tell just by their eyes.
    Professional interrogators are looking at you. Focused on every thing you do, every breath you take, every body gesture you make, every drop of sweat on your brow, every twitch of your eyes, every utterance of a catch in your breathing. This is often interpreted as interest and often inculcates a hypnotic state between the conversers if it goes on long enough.
    A great conversation can often make time seem to fly past. It’s a talent of great conversationalists or speech givers you could say. This is something like fun or excitement or love, but it is essentially a mental state where you are highly suggestible and absorbing information often times without conscious filters. Much like a hypnotic state. Two people can feel this connection and they can also tell if it is mutual often times by the atmosphere.
    It takes a substantial training period before a person can use these skills reliably. That’s why I said professional, not amateur, interrogators. Every human has an ability to read facial expressions. That is an amateur level ability. To hone it to the next level, one must practice it in a defined setting.
    For me, I came about this subject in the opposite direction. Rather than learning about it because I wanted to get people to spill the beans, I learned about it in the course of studying how people were trained to resist enemy interrogation in a confined setting. Being able to tell if a person is lying or not, is nice. But my chief concern was how to get people to not tell the truth under interrogation for prolonged periods of time. It was an often noted topic when studying secret police societies and totalitarian governments.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I am a great admirer of Israeli security know-how and definitely would want to fly El Al if I was going to Israel. Israel, however, is a small country with limited air links.
    Let’s do a mind game: think about the last time you went through airport security at a major airport: O’Hare, LAX, San Francisco, La Guardia. Think about how long it took you to get through security. OK….got that? Now, think of every individual in that line being interrogated for 80 minutes. Think of how much TSA would need to expand to meet the demand…..think of how much TSA would need to pay for trained, experienced interrogators.
    See where this is going?

  • Don Quixote

    Oh my gosh, Spartacus, you’ve been profiled!  Don’t you feel scarred for life?  Don’t you have a sudden urge to sue somebody? 

  • Spartacus

    Crying in my beer, Sr. Quixote.  😉
    But that’s just it, isn’t it?  We all profile and are profiled everyday, and that’s not inherently a bad thing; in fact, we’re silly if we don’t.  Intertwining threads here a bit, I’m convinced that’s a core piece of the solution.  Like zabrina and kali said in the other thread, re-privatize and remove all liability for profiling.
    There’s a debate over whether backscatter x-rays can even detect carefully concealed PETN.  The Knickerbomber over Detroit was one thing — he had the explosives wrapped around his Little Jihad Generators.  But what about that AQAP guy who kinda blew up at the Saudi prince?  He’d been in the custody of Saudi security forces as a known terrorist for a day or two, and thoroughly strip-searched (twice, I think) before being escorted into the presence of The Prince.  Does Janet really propose to search where he had his stuff hidden?  If so, how about the front-line TSA worker charged with carrying out the policy, who thinks he sees a blur in the lower intestine, maybe, but by regulation is in a different room and doesn’t even know that the subject is a 23 year-old mechanical engineering student from Jordan?  Is the TSA checkpoint supervisor really going to want to break out the latex and lube, or assume “it’s probably nothing”?  Or how about the female jihadi with the suspiciously large bra size?  The backscatter might pick up a different density there — but isn’t silicone a little different from flesh anyway? — except that she won’t go through the backscatter at all, because she was “randomly” selected for a pat-down on 16 of 17 test runs.
    The drill is to see someone with a resume like Oldflyer’s and say, “Oh, no, sir, you don’t need to go through the metal detector… just go on board,” but see the nervous Jordanian engineering student who made the security dog go beserk and be empowered to give him a full refund and an Amtrak brochure.
    Have folks set up a security interview with their favorite airline(s) several weeks before flying.  If they like you, you can be in their system.  If not, you can’t.  (Kind of like getting a mortgage: if you have no assets or income, no bank should feel pressured by the USG to do business with you.)  Some airlines might ask for a list of references — twenty people who are willing to swear, on pain of a year in prison if they are wrong, that they know you well, and that you are not a terrorist.  Then, having checked backgrounds and references, they can eliminate 95+% of everyone, and for the rest, either scrub harder until satisfied or give them an Amtrak brochure and wish them a good day.  The freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment should apply to free enterprise in a free country.
    (I’m not suggesting this would be easy to achieve politically.  Maybe after we lose another couple of airplanes, though.)

  • Ymarsakar

    “Think of how much TSA would need to expand to meet the demand”
    Which is why I favor a de-centralized system that puts the onus on the individual, not the employer of somebody else. The greater and more complex the system, the more benefits of bottom up initiative. On the other hand, the smaller the movement, the greater the benefit of centralization. Which is why small communities benefit more from a solidified leadership than huge empires and governments presiding over large geographical areas like the US.

  • Ymarsakar

    “Think of how much TSA would need to expand to meet the demand…..think of how much TSA would need to pay for trained, experienced interrogators.

    See where this is going?”
    It’s going to go into private contractors. When the military wants something done and they can’t grow it in house cause it would take 5 to 10 years, they contract it to businesses that actually have the tools and know how already in stock. So when airports need interrogators, they go hire a company that has interrogators. So when airports need people interrogated, they give them appointments before they get near the plane or the airport. Less chances of a Mass Casualty bomb incident when somebody is detected at the port. Or if the port was the actual target, not the plane.
    But Democrats will refuse to do so. None of their friends and businesses specialize in such matters so they won’t allow business to be given to their non-friends.

  • jj

    Well – that took… what?  Three days?  The walking nub, Napolitano, about as trustworthy as any other government employee, tells us this can’t happen.  Impossible.

    Rush Limbaugh spent a few minutes this morning looking through another set – not this set, at the bottom – of leaked (they’re immediately deleted!  That’s impossible!) scans from an airport.  He also told the story of how, when the machines were being tested by the TSA morons one of the test subjects was a rather, shall we say, as it turned out, under-endowed male, who has been walking around beating up those agents who’ve been laughing at him about it for the last few weeks.  (Don’t know if that’s a true story or not, but Limbaugh made it good for a laugh.)  Bring us your breast implants, your penile implants, and your liposuction scars, and we’ll stand beside that Golden Door and get a good laugh.

  • Jose

    Big Sis claims those scans absolutely CANNOT be saved.

    Does she really expect me to believe that if TSA does catch a terrorist those scans won’t be saved as evidence?

  • Jose

    I was profiled in several years ago.  As a military member traveling within CONUS on official business I got extra screening at every stop.  I was told it was because I did not have a paper copy of my travel orders in hand – like they would know real from forgeries.

  • Ymarsakar

    So let me get this straight. The Left made a big fuss about Bush wiretapping people without a court order. But they think invasive searches of people’s private parts without a court order is what is necessary for them to achieve Utopia and victory in this war against all that is good and true in humanity?
    Something doesn’t smell right.

  • ELaineT

    Ymarsakar – your comment reminded me of the link I followed either from here or Neoneocon to stories in a German publication about Communist/leftist attempts to break all taboos to enable the rebuilding of society/culture in their preferred image.
    This crosses taboos, of the same sort:  personal privacy and personal boundaries.  Maybe that connection, whether or not the Leftists here in the US consciously think of it, is behind their lack of fuss.  Anything that could break sexual/personal/privacy taboos is good.  The wiretapping is bad because it doesn’t.

  • Ymarsakar

    Elaine, I think I remember that article. The Germans had a youth program about raising better children by exposing them to sex. Very progressive, for their time.