Airport Security: Israel vs. the United States

A comparison:

We were subjected to a 15-minute interrogation at the airport in Eilat, in southern Israel, after spending the weekend in neighboring Jordan. The young, bespectacled security official was robotic and driven in his questioning. He asked to see a copy of my husband’s invitation to his conference. The full names of anyone we knew in Israel. More and more questions, raising suspicions that started to make me feel guilty.

“Did you give anyone your e-mail or phone number? Did anyone want to stay in contact with you?” He had us pegged for naive travelers who could become the tool of terrorists.

He even went through our digital photos, stopping at a picture of a little boy, holding a baby goat. “Who is this?”

“It’s a Bedouin,” I snapped. “We don’t have his contact information.”

In the same calm tone, he told me not to become angry. Later I realized it was a necessary part of traveling in Israel, as a safety precaution. Ironically, we didn’t have to throw away our water bottles or take off our shoes when we passed through the security gate—which made me wonder at the effectiveness of U.S. policies at airports.

Regularly I hear people talking about Israeli airport security, and asking why we can’t do the same in the U.S. The short answer is: scale. Israel has 11 million airline passengers a year; there are close to 700 million in the U.S. Israel has seven airports; the U.S. has over 400 “primary” airports—and who knows how many others. Things that can work there just don’t scale to the U.S.

Posted on July 3, 2007 at 3:13 PM71 Comments


Carlo Graziani July 3, 2007 3:50 PM

Interesting numbers.

Israel: 11Mpassengers/yr / 7Airports = 1.57 Mpassenger/Airport/Year

US: 700Mpassengers/yr / 400 Airports = 1.75 Mpassenger/Airport/Year

Not really a qualitative difference.

Intuitively I agree it wouldn’t work here, and it has something to do with scale, but these numbers don’t show that.

Mike Scott July 3, 2007 3:57 PM

I’m inclined to agree that it’s not about scale. As pointed out above, the US has many more airports and passengers than Israel, but it also has many more resources, in approximately the same proportion. It’s simply not worthwhile for the US to devote a similar proportion of its total resources to security, when the risks are so very much lower than they are in Israel. If the US were to suffer as many terrorist incidents per head as Israel, for a protracted period, I expect you would see similar security measures come into force.

ARM July 3, 2007 4:01 PM

I think the real problem with scaling the program is the sheer number of investigators that you would need for the U.S. They would ALL have to be very well trained, and competitively compensated, as you can’t have the “You WILL respect mah authoritay!” sort doing the interviews. I suspect that you’d have a hard time setting pay high enough that the TSA could afford to be truly selective in picking candidates.

junky July 3, 2007 4:04 PM

Scaling wise, I imagine that a large portion of the 700M US flights are inter-state and 15 minutes of interrogation about who you know in Atlanta/Denver/Chicago might quickly become inane.

Sez Me July 3, 2007 4:06 PM

I agree with a couple of the above comments. while the per airport averages may be similar, consider trying to manage security at 7 airports versus 400 airports.

Even with the same average size per airport, training and coordination at 400 would clearly be more difficult. It would also be tougher to plug holes at the 400, and keep in mind that one airport with poor security will give an entry point to the others.

john July 3, 2007 4:06 PM

Scale has nothing to do with it. It’s two factors the first is money, spending 15 minutes interviewing each passenger is expensive. Especially since interviewers need much better training than bag searchers. The second factor is risk, the actual risk of terrorist attacks on planes in the US is very low, conversely the actual risk in Israel is high, so it’s worth it to spend the money.

The reason we get what we do in the US is that the perceived risk is high. Security theater is a cheap way to mitigate perceived risk.

Zwack July 3, 2007 4:08 PM

It wouldn’t work in the US and the reason is not just because of Scale, although resources are something to do with it.

Think about it, in the US we have long lines of people waiting far too long to go through metal detectors and send their bags through x-ray machines… These require relatively few people to operate for the number of people traveling.

In addition we have classes of people that get favourable treatment (frequent flyers and certain flights get to use the short line)…

The reason it won’t work is that 15 minute questioning. That has to be done for at least a reasonable sized group of people (perhaps all, I don’t know) but certainly at least a large minority. Can you imagine if the slow moving (but constantly moving) lines at the checkpoints were replaced by people having fifteen minute interviews. There would be riots.

Given the number of people who were being turned away from the short line last time I was at the airport (“Sorry, you can only use the frequent flier benefit if you are flying on that airline”, “No, you can’t use this line because you are almost late for your flight”,…) people would not accept a routine fifteen minute interview to be allowed to fly.


yoshi July 3, 2007 4:18 PM

I don’t buy that the 15 minute questioning will result in riots. That’s a cop out answer with no basis in reality.

I look at the willingness to train as the biggest obstacles. I’ve experienced the full isreal treatment but I have also experienced a lighter version of it. At Gatwick I was given a 10 minute version of it when checking my luggage. Again asking why I was there, where I stayed, etc. At Schiphol I experienced another 10 minute version but it was more of a conversation and everyone was interviewed at the gate (versus the checkin area).

Ritchie July 3, 2007 4:22 PM

I’ve been to Israël only once, and let me tell you that nobody prepared me for the grilling I was about to face !!!!

I think all my answers rang the alarm bell, and luckily I was travelling with an Israëli and he knew the answers I didn’t …

Q/A that ring alarm bells :
Q: When did you decide to come to Israel?
A: It was decided yesterday at noon !!!

Q: Who bought the ticket ?
A: My company !

Q: What hotel are you going to ?
A: Actually, I’m going to my boss apartment !

And a couple more …

Anyway, that was at El-Al registration at Paris CDG Airport …

When I took the return flight, it was a lot simpler !

I think that they have a good system, much better than the fingerprinting and photos which doesn’t give you insight on people !

Ok, a prepared terrorist would have a chance to go through, but he’d still have a good 10-15 minute grilling, compared to a 2 minute simple interview plus fingerprinting and picture. 10-15 minutes are a lot harder to pass without an error than 2 minutes. On top of that, these guys remember faces, so they could (probably do) not interview the same person for multiple flights, so they could cross-ref the answers and their take on the person !

Tell me how you are going to learn something from the same fingerprints and pictures from multiple flights. Geez, he didn’t shave and yuk look he didn’t wash his hands, that must be ketchup !!!!

Really, USA, learn something !!!!!

On top of that, you’ll employ people, and moreover they’ll do something REAL against terrorists and other criminals … and think they are useful to their country !! (It’ll probably cost less too !)

Just my 2 cents !


Ritchie July 3, 2007 4:24 PM

Oups, double post, sorry, please remove the first one, I made a couple of correction in the second.

avery July 3, 2007 4:38 PM

A good reason why we might not want to do this here – what’s the point?

“Who is this little boy?” How would a terrorist answer this question? What if you did give someone your e-mail address for some reason? Half of Nigeria seems to have my e-mail address. What are they going to do, text message me with an explosives laden goat?

The most pleasant airport security experience I ever had was in Munich, Nov 2001. It was quick. They did not attempt to divine my intentions. I would not like to have been trying to sneak a weapon on board.

averros July 3, 2007 4:59 PM

The Israeli style security is all about intimidation – trying to break down the composure of the person being interrogated. They are not interested in answers at all, they look for signs of deliberate lying and unusual nervousness.

Roy July 3, 2007 5:00 PM

Israeli security also looks at checked baggage. When we went, we had a fairly large musical instrument with us (a kind of portable pipe organ!) We told them about it, but they obviously took it apart to be sure. They almost got it back together correctly too!

Sean July 3, 2007 5:03 PM

“Israel: 11Mpassengers/yr / 7Airports = 1.57 Mpassenger/Airport/Year

US: 700Mpassengers/yr / 400 Airports = 1.75 Mpassenger/Airport/Year

Not really a qualitative difference.

Yes, it is somewhat qualitative. Airports are not interchangeable. In 2004, the top 20 primary airports EACH handled more than 11M pax/year. Atlanta handled 42M.

Paul Renault July 3, 2007 5:04 PM

Carlo Graziani et al,

Israel: 11M passengers/yr / 7Airports = 1.57 M passengers/Airport/Year
US: 700M passengers/yr / 400 Airports = 1.75 M passengers/Airport/Year

Population of Israel: 7,082,000
Popupation of USA: 301,140,000

So Israel has one airport per million population, the USA has one per 3/4 million.

Israel: 11M passengers / 7M population = 1.57 passenger per population;
USA: 700M passengers / 301M population = 2.33 passengers per population (48% more).

In addition to having to hire more of ’em, they’d have to find better, more-motivated security personnel than American airports currently hire, and pay them more, much more than minimum wage.

Rockhound, from the movie Armageddon: “Hey Harry, you know we’re sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has two hundred thousand moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good doesn’t it?”

I think of that scene almost every time I hear about some bone-headed move by security personnel at American airports.

Grahame July 3, 2007 5:23 PM

Israeli security is not just airport security, it’s also traveller security and part of an overall culture where the relationship between freedom, being alive and security is relatively obvious, thereby increasing the number of possible screeners, the collaboration from the travellers, and decreasing the abuse. These things are not true of USA (fortunately, really), and this is the bigger reason – rather than scale – that this approach would be inappropriate in USA

José Esteves July 3, 2007 5:37 PM

Meanwhile, the European Commission shows its determination on importing insanity:

EU proposes anti-terror measures
[ ].

Killing privacy and freedom of speech counts as doubleplusgood around here:

“The measure is expected to require air passengers travelling into the EU to submit data for security agencies. […]
Other proposals include […] making the spread of bomb-making instructions online a criminal offence.’
“We will find a better way to discourage and to detect terrorists,” Mr Frattini said.”

Indeed, the Commissioners could be busy doing that, instead…

Pat Cahalan July 3, 2007 6:14 PM

Two points:

One regarding scale: linear comparisons don’t always work (often they don’t work at all). Assume the US and Israel could both need exactly 10 highly skilled security wonk per airport. Well, that means Israel needs to find and/or train 70 people, and the US needs to train 4000. In Israel everyone does some time in the military, in the US proportionally speaking nobody does. It might be trivially easy for Israel to find 70 or maybe even 400 security personnel, that doesn’t have any correlation with how easy (or even how possible) it would be for the US to find 70, let alone 4000.

Second, target population. I’ve brought this up before. Again, in Israel, everyone has spent some time in the military. In the US, hardly anyone has. In Israel, you can interrogate 1000 Israelis like they’re military personnel and 1000 of them will have experienced it before. In the US, you can interrogate 1000 citizens like they’re military personnel and 10 of them will have experienced it before. Now instead of a very small number of people, maybe dozens, getting flustered by the technique, you have hundreds. Not to mention there are going to be a half dozen who get seriously, intractably irritated due to their privacy expectations and drag things out just on the principle of the thing.

Suddenly instead of averaging 15 minutes per interview, you average 30, 60, or more minutes per interview. Now you need more than twice as many security personnel in the US as you do in Israel. Aw, crud, we already didn’t have enough!

Cascade failures! Queuing theory! Complex systems fail due to complex interactions! If everything scaled linearly, it would be trivially easy to make a computer as reliable as my calculator. Empirically, this is not the case.

The U.S. is not like Israel. It’s not even remotely like Israel. Comparing and modeling security systems efficacy in Israel compared to the U.S. is really, really difficult because the initial conditions are so different.

John Neystadt July 3, 2007 6:57 PM

Israeli security doesn’t interview for 15 min every person. They select (according to profiling, external appearence and other factors) people for these interviews. Others pass after a 30 seconds and 2-3 very basic questions.

As to economic cost, one could ty to sum up productivity loss due to people spending time in airport lines (similar to traffjams). I guess it would be quite easy to justify additional training and smarter procedures in the airport, by demonstraying the savings to the economy.

Dougie July 3, 2007 7:12 PM

My partner, her mother and her sister have vowed never to go to Israel again after being interrogated to the point of tears at the airport. She also refuses to buy anything made or grown in Israel.
Their methods may be good for security but they’re VERY bad for PR.

sooth_sayer July 3, 2007 9:11 PM

What’s the big deal here?
From what I can see there is no difference between US vs Israeli security .. Israel has created an aura that they are better than anyone else .. but actual stats show a different picture, they probably have worst record of hijackings/blowups than anyone else in the world (for # of flights). Most terrorists in this area treat Israel and US as same .. so to claim that Israelis have somehow solved the problem is just boneheaded thinking.

Stephen July 3, 2007 11:52 PM

“Later I realized it was a necessary part of traveling in Israel”

Sadly, she seems to forget that confidence in your actions and refusing to submit to unnecessary authority are necessary parts of living a full life.

Richard Braakman July 4, 2007 1:36 AM

Israel has a much more clearly defined risk profile. They know who their enemies are and what those enemies are trying to achieve, so their security personnel know what they’re looking for.

By contrast, the USA not only has an enormously varied risk profile, they’ve also deliberately blinded themselves to the nature and goals of their enemies. Their security personnel have no clue what to look for (“Liquids! We must ban liquids!”) and it shows. That’s why the same approach wouldn’t work there.

Moz July 4, 2007 2:04 AM


I belive that the point about Israel is that they used to have a terrible situation. They had hijackings and bombings and so on. Then they changed their security procedures and, since then, they don’t have the same problems. Ben Gurion hasn’t had an “serious incident in 30 years” [1].

I don’t buy the scaling argument. For example, a decompression machine is an obvious system where having more baggage flowing through means more economies of scale.

What I do think is that in the USA people are used to cheap air travel and so paying for the security would be a much bigger problem than in Israel where most air travel is international travel and so more expensive.


Dimitris Andrakakis July 4, 2007 2:17 AM


Most terrorists in this area treat Israel and US as same

This is inaccurate, to say the least.

MathFox July 4, 2007 2:23 AM

I’ve been subject to “interrogations” when flying from Amsterdam with USA-based airlines. The US style interrogation is a checklist that any terrorist smarter than attempting to create a fuel bomb without oxidizer could pass with a bit of training. Part of my script:

Agent: “Is that laptop your personal property or that of your employer?”
Me: “Both”
Agent shows confusion
Me: “I am self-employed”

Israel security is based on intelligence and risk profile, they try to be effective, they have to. US security is guided by incidents, badly organized and more intimidating than effective. Nobody explained the “liquid ban” satisfactory… The “liquid bombers” had neither bombs, chemicals, passports nor tickets.

ForReal July 4, 2007 3:58 AM

“Especially since interviewers need much better training than bag searchers.”
It’s NOT training, it’s the quality of the people. Security, like anything else of importance, needs an active mind, not a trained seal to do correctly.!

Anonymous July 4, 2007 4:24 AM

I frankly don’t see why it wouldn’t work in the USA, too – or, rather, I don’t see why the sheer amount of passengers and airports should be a problem. The USA are a much larger country, with a much larger budget, and it should be possible to higher a much higher number of screeners etc., too…

Now, there might be problems with delays etc. if everyone’s subjected to 15 minutes of questioning prior to every flight (business travellers in particular might not like this, and might try to exert political pressure to get exempt from these requirements), but the fact that there’s more passengers and more airports in the USA… well, so what?

Anonymous July 4, 2007 4:44 AM

Yet another reason I’m not going to travel to Israel anytime soon. (And neither to the US). Because if I did there is a high chance of me forever being denied entry due to verbally abusing or at least mentally fucking with the security douchebag.

I have crossed the iron curtain several times when it still existed. Back then everyone was offended by the relatively harmless questioning you received at the border. Compared to the treatment tourists with shitloads of money to spend on the local economy receive these days when they want to enter certain countries for fun and recreation that cold war era treatment was NOTHING. Yes, I was never treated as bad by an Warsaw Pact border officer as I was treated e.g. by US immigration officials. I (and a growing number of other people) can do without that kind of bullshit. Guess where we are spending and will continue to spend our money in the future?

Carnadine July 4, 2007 5:17 AM

I’d like to repeat what John Neystadt said above, that not everyone who goes through the Israeli airport system gets pulled into a room and interrogated for fifteen minutes, like people above seem to think. I’ve gone through Ben Gurion several times in the past couple years, and apparently been pegged as mildly suspicious a couple of those times when preparing to board a flight out of Israel.

What the security people actually did was ask us intimidating questions /in line/ to the baggage check counter. Since these lines usually take 20-30 minutes to get through, and the questions take maybe ten minutes, and only a very small minority of passengers get questioned in depth (most of what they do is just going around, greeting random passengers and looking for people who look nervous), ZERO passenger time is wasted. You don’t even lose your place in line. And we didn’t even have to take off our shoes once throughout the entire boarding process. (Not that there aren’t people who are pulled off for more serious questioning if they act suspiciously, or have a suspicious profile, but that’s true of any airport.)

Now, compare this to the obstacle courses in US airports – multiple metal detectors & baggage x-rays and hours of passenger time wasted on security theater. I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to shell out a bit more money when buying a ticket if it meant much less time and hassle getting through security – as well as better security.

Also, it’s not either one system or the other. Wouldn’t it make sense for the US airports to cut down a bit on, for example, the many sets of metal detectors and the people it takes to man them, and instead use the money toward hiring a few dozen people (amount depending on airport size, of course) trained in behavioral profiling to move between the lines at the airport? This would improve security, not take up passenger time and not be too much more expensive. Less additional people would be needed than you probably think, especially if they’re there to supplement an existing system.

AJ Finch July 4, 2007 5:41 AM

I wonder if the reason is that Israel is facing a largely genuine threat and the USA is facing a largely imaginary one?

My solution?
Route all US flights through Israel!


ZeroZero July 4, 2007 6:24 AM

The US and UK systems are mainly designed to intimidate their own citizens. The sheep must be trained to quietly accept arbitrary measures that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate how small and powerless they (the citizens) really are.

Anonymous July 4, 2007 7:31 AM

“The Israeli style security is all about intimidation – trying to break down the composure of the person being interrogated.”

Note that this is standard procedure for any interrogation. And it is the reason why Israeli-style security would be a massive failure if applied in the US: yes, you can ask people to take off their shoes and drink their breast milk and smile while doing it … but as soon as you start interacting with them in non-trivial ways, far too many people will not tolerate the assault and will fight back, not only to the interrogators face but to the airline pocketbook. As in: “Fuck this shit, I’m driving!”

derek July 4, 2007 11:00 AM

I hope it’s allowed to share the following news with you:

At New York’s Kennedy airport, an individual later discovered to be a public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a setsquare, a slide rule, and a calculator. At a morning press conference, Attorney general John Ashcroft said he believes the man is a member of the notorious al-gebra movement. He is being charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

Anonymous 451 July 4, 2007 2:52 PM

@ Anonymous at July 4, 2007 04:44 AM
“Yes, I was never treated as bad by an Warsaw Pact border officer as I was treated e.g. by US immigration officials. I (and a growing number of other people) can do without that kind of bullshit. Guess where we are spending and will continue to spend our money in the future?”

Damn right. I refuse to come to the US while they treat visitors like common criminals. I’ve decided instead to go somewhere where they treat their guests like civilized human beings, and so with delicious irony, I’ll be holidaying in China this year instead.

…and what an appropriate day to be discussing such things.

michael July 5, 2007 4:05 AM

example of intimidation : The EU plastic bag.

A tube of toothpaste in a plastic bag is more secure than a tube of toothpaste not in a plastic bag, even if it is the only thing in the plastic tray. Go back to end of line if you dont put it in plastic bag first

Shachar Shemesh July 5, 2007 6:58 AM

@John Neystadt

Yes, not everyone are going through the 15 minutes interrogations. Some are asked a couple of questions at most. My personal quickest was once, when flying from Paris to Israel via El-Al, was “Here, give me the ticket so I can sign it”.

I should also note that I once sat back sit in an El-Al 747 cockpit during landing at Ben-Gurion.

Was those security breaches? Let’s see. In the Paris case, the security selector was my sister. The cockpit “incident” was an all Check-Point employees chartered flight.

And this is the important thing. El-Al does not rely on demographic profiling for black listing, but they do rely on demographic profiling for white listing. If you are Jewish, hold an Israeli passport, and speak Hebrew with an accent, you will get the standard several questions (where are you travelling to? packed yourself? etc.). If you hesitate, seem nervous or stutter answering those, you will, likely, be pulled aside for further grilling.

I have a friend who was born here, and answers the profile exactly, but has the appearance of a German tourist. In Europe people keep addressing him in German, and act extremely surprised when he says he does not speak the language. Whenever encountering El-Al’s security screeners, he get the same response. They hail him in English, he responds in Hebrew, and gets the short screening.

That’s the real reason the El-Al (incoming)/Ben-Gurion (outgoing) screening will not work in the US. Israel has a group that satisfies the following criteria:
1. It is easy for a well trained screener to spot when someone does not belong to the group.
2. This group is about 85% of the passengers screened.
3. This group is extremely low risk.

Of course, this is not the whole of it. Covert agents routinely check the screeners. As far as I know, the checks are done from people who do, in fact, belong to the “whitelist” group, and is based on behavioral profiling. A screener who fails the test once is unceremoniously fired. I see no reason why that part of the screening cannot be incorporated into the US system.


bob July 5, 2007 7:13 AM

If >3.2oz of liquid can destroy a plane, then shouldnt they be preventing get-togethers of conspirators once on the plane? So they should divide 3.2oz by the number of seats on the plane; so in a Piper Cherokee each person could have 0.8 oz [the pilot could be in on it, after all the pilot has NO WAY to harm the aircraft wihout explosives] whereas on an A380 they would have to prohibit above ~0.0054 oz per person. And of course it would still have to be in a 1 quart (only!) plastic bag.

s1r July 5, 2007 8:05 AM

I’ve never been subject to El-Al questioning, but at what point do you just tell them “that’s none of your f-ing business!”?

The US screening is bad enough, but why would I want to answer personal questions or even show my vacation pictures to an airline flunkie?

concerned denizen July 5, 2007 10:58 AM

one thing that israeli security does correctly that i wish would be implemented in the US is that they check your baggage in front of you and ask you to open the locks yourself. i’ve lost several “TSA approved” locks to the invisible baggage handlers behind closed doors and i still don’t trust that they’re not planting evidence in my bag when they’re searching it.

derf July 5, 2007 12:14 PM

I’m fairly certain that an interview with a minimally trained TSA agent wouldn’t make any more of a security difference than having my bags and shoes x-ray’d by a minimally trained TSA agent.

MKP July 5, 2007 12:30 PM

Having the 15 minutes questioning would not make any difference for some one who is prepared for ‘mischief’. He would know how to answer them.

But for the rest of the public it could prove to be an unpleasant experience.

I guess this kind of security measure would result in quite a lot of false positives.

Stephen Smoogen July 5, 2007 12:45 PM

I think the major breakdown in linear scales comes down to the fact that the US citizen is not willing to pay for the costs of it. The average US citizen wants a super secure world until you start telling them the costs of it. If I remember correctly, the average Israeli airport has at least 50 security personell, AND they have 10+ at each port of entry in other countries (EG every international airport that their airlines fly through). One thing from looking at the points of entry.. the airports are designed in place for these 5-15 minute interviews per passenger group. The US airport design is the cattle call design and the hub/spoke model. Get as many people on the airplane as quickly as possible and get them off in the same order. Most are designed off of plans from before there were metal detectors and such.. so they end up with giant choke points over and over whenever something new is added.

So in order to go with an Israeli model.. you would need to A) redesign every airport, B) staff to the level of about 4-10x the people you have currently doing security with the training/pay that is about 4-10x the amount the TSA person gets paid now.

You would also have to change the mindset of the American passenger where speed is the major view.

Anonymous July 5, 2007 4:36 PM

“…Israel has created an aura that they are better than anyone else .. but actual stats show a different picture, they probably have worst record of hijackings/blowups than anyone else in the world (for # of flights). ”

Utter, utter nonsense. Despite being probably the number one target, there has only ever been one successful hijacking of an El-Al flight, and that was in 1968, before they implemented their now famous security measures. There has never been even one successful “blow up” of an El-Al flight.

In the 1980s, there were successful terrorist attacks against El-Al ticket counters in airports not under Israeli control; when this was tried again at LA in 2002, the terrorist managed to kill only 2 people before he was himself shot and killed.

Dscho July 5, 2007 5:12 PM

I agree it is a qualitative difference. But not of the numbers.

Let me explain. Last time I was subjected to the ordeal of airport “security” in the United States, there were five “queue dispatchers”. They just stood in front of the queue, telling everybody which way to go, contradicting each other, and even “dispatching” people to a security gate which closed before they could go through it.

The people at the security gate were none the better. The woman had a deep, concerned look about a water bottle, which was placed in a bag so you did not see it at once (how dare they!). She called for her supervisor. Yes, really. She was not able to cope with a simple bottle of water.

By contrast, the Israeli in the article seemed to be a competent, well-trained officer. He told the lady to calm down. He did not have to reach for his gun, and become louder and more intimidating (and yes, I saw that at the airport myself).

It boils down to quality of available personnel.

X the Unknown July 6, 2007 1:56 PM

@AJ Finch: “Route all US flights through Israel!”

Actually, this probably isn’t that ridiculous an idea, at its core: outsource TSA to Israel.

I’d bet they can round up a bunch of highly-qualified security types who want steady employment, and come up with some administrators and process designers who actually understand airport security needs. It might not actually cost less than the DHS is spending now (they’d want to make a profit, after all) – but we’d actually get something for our money!

Dumassbros July 6, 2007 5:58 PM

You need to scale it ALL.. every passenger to show 3 hours before flight; every checked bag to go through decompression chamber; security expenditures (El-Al with 30-some aircraft and 48 destinations vs. say Delta with 767 aircraft and 322 destinations worldwide still spends > $100 million/year on security); nearly all flight crew been through IAF and other crew through army service; etc., etc.

Besides their enemies have just switched the targets from jet liners to other softer targets e.g. cafes & restaurants…

You can make a counter argument e.g. that Israel with 1,006 km of borders has been penetrated a lot more than the US with 12,248 km (yeah I know it’s probably just luck!) transited by 489 million people (142 million by airline from overseas); 127 million passenger vehicles; 11.6 million maritime containers; 11.5 million trucks and 202 million rail cars; etc. a year

Alex July 8, 2007 8:56 AM

How can anyone argue with proven success? As someone who served in the Israeli army and frequent (at least once a year) traveler to Israel I do NOT mind the 2 minute routine interogation. People need to understand that Israel does what I would call “risk management”. God forbid the alternative of an incident! By the way, the young interogators at the airport are undergoing a two year training and are being paid very well. These are very desireable positions and acceptance into the program is very selective.

Aaron July 10, 2007 12:36 AM

“Israel: 11Mpassengers/yr / 7Airports = 1.57 Mpassenger/Airport/Year”

Interesting observation, but if you fly into Israel you realize that the primary airport is Ben-Gurion/TLV, and it alone probably handles the large majority of those 11 million passengers. So there clearly is a way–some way–to effectively implement this system in a large airport setting where the traffic has to keep moving.

The difference though is that the majority of passengers are usually flying out on international flights (Israel’s a tiny country–no way there’re 11 million domestic air passengers each year!) meaning there is already more of an expectation of spending time at check-in, security and customs, plus everyone’s already been advised to show up the usual 3 hours early. This is a lot different than the 45-minute expectations that a lot of US domestic travelers have.

As for “intimidation”… the Israeli airport interrogation is meant to break through the subject’s story and get to the truth. It feels temporarily rough, but it’s actually effective and also reinforces a public feeling of security–one that you’ll unexpectedly and happily start to notice when you’re getting on the airplane.

The US system is less about “intimidation” and more about irritation: it feels overbearing both during and after its execution and does little to reinforce a sense of security in the public. On the contrary it appears capricious, ineffective and obnoxious, and its practitioners and overseers are widely seen as inflexible dolts who are following a plan that doesn’t even look good on paper, much less in practice.

The Israeli system utilizes, but doesn’t rely on, profiling–i.e. statistical, cognitive/physiological and perceptual models of whom is likely to be an attacker and whom is likely to be safe. It is far more sophisticated than silly ideas often thrown about here in America on skin color and other crude “profiling” methods (which are really just entry-level column sorting algorithms). (Anyway there are lots of dark-skinned Israelis–so a skin color based model would be useless there anyway). The Israel system is probably more akin to criminal profiling of “unsubs” (just in reverse!), and is obviously a lot more flexible than what we usually call “profiling” here in the States. It also gives a say to gut instinct–something that in America would invite a lawsuit from the ACLU.

One of these systems looks a lot smarter than the other. I know which one I prefer.

Andre Fucs July 10, 2007 6:48 AM

Shachar Shemesh said:

“It is easy for a well trained screener to spot when someone does not belong to the group.”

If you can describe what is the “group” it would be a good start. Being european looking, Jewish, and speaking Hebrew with Sabra accent is far too restrictive to the Israeli reality. Do not forget that Israel has the largest immigrant per habitant ratio in the world.


Aaron said:
“The Israeli system utilizes, but doesn’t rely on, profiling”

Parts of the Israeli system utilizes and largely relies on profiles. During the first security rings of the airport you will barely hear any question other than “where are you driving from” or “where are you flying to”.

My wife is frequently complaining about the fact that due to her European look she is never stopped to the usual bag quick checking that Israelis usually have to do before entering an store or public building.


Richard Braakman said:

“Israel has a much more clearly defined risk profile. They know who their enemies are and what those enemies are trying to achieve, so their security personnel know what they’re looking for.”

Incorrect. There’s no such a thing as “they know their enemies”. One of the largest terrorist actions inside the Tel Aviv airport was perpetrated by Japanese terrorists in 30th of May 1971.

All that said I must tell I love our airport. X-rays are efficient, screeners annoying but professional and the female border police agents… Oi Va Voi!

jayh July 10, 2007 2:39 PM

unfreakin believable. perusing personal photos, demanding answers to personal questions…. and people are DEFENDING this behavior!?!

I have pretty much sworn off flying. If I can’t drive there, I don’t go.

rue August 18, 2007 7:27 AM

When I fly back from vacation I’m not willing to discuss and justify what I did the last week with airport security.

It is the most intimitating thing I ever experienced and police state par excellence.

This interrogations are the reason why I will not come back to Israel (for vacation).

I think that measures like this destroy the very freedom they are meant to protect.

BTW: Actual screening for dangerous goods (in IsraelI) was pretty bad.

travelphotog August 18, 2007 7:45 AM

I have been through Israeli security at least four dozen times in the past 8 years, and I have to tell you- it IS thorough. However, the security agents are usually fairly friendly, very efficient and certainly committed. Their questions can be a bit odd at times, but I have been assured that it’s not the answers they are concerned with, but HOW you answer. Give me a trip through Ben Gurion airport any time- at least the security agents there KNOW what they are doing.

mental health clinician August 18, 2007 11:56 AM

I had an interesting experience a the El Al terminal in Amsterdam. The initial interrogator was a very attractive young woman and I felt that she was almost flirting with me. Although the content of the conversation was about my flight details (which included a red flag – a last minute schedule change), the TONE of the conversation felt more like something you might have at a bar. It was relaxed and she punctuated it with many beautiful smiles – even mild laughter at one point.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

Could my warm/welcoming response to her ‘flirtiness’ be as good at detecting whether I was on the safe ‘white list’ as the more troubling, angrier, attempts to make me lose my composure that other writers have described above?

Additionally–and perhaps even more simply–could a terrorist be genuinely attracted to Israeli women? If a female interrogator can confidently think to herself ‘this guy is hitting on me’ can she equally confidently state that he must not have a problem with Jewish people/Israel?

just a thought..

Richard Steven Hack August 18, 2007 4:40 PM

The entire discussion is irrelevant.

As someone else above pointed out, once Israel had effective airline security, the target profile shifted.

The US has FAR MORE targets than Israel ever will have.

We have trains, buses, light rail, small airports, boats – even the New York City tram was targeted in the movie “Nighthawks”. Not to mention every other congregation of citizens possible. Remember the movie scene where terrorists just walked down the street passing by a dozen restaurants and throwing hand grenades into them?

You CANNOT have “security against terrorism”. Period. You can only have limited security against specific targets – or you can have a massive non-productive amount of your GNP devoted to security.

There are only two ways to control – not stop – terrorism:

1) Kill them all – only possible where the group is small, localized, and locatable – e.g., Che Guevara in Bolivia. The Al Qaeda “franchise” and/or radical Islamism does not fit this demographic.

2) “Drain the swamp” – make it unreasonable for anybody but the truly fanatical to engage in terrorism, then deal with those people with 1) above. In other words, treat it as a “public health problem”. Reduce the incidence, then treat the remaining cases as “emergencies”.

This requires major realignments of foreign policy between nations. Good luck with that…

Anything else is a bandaid solution that cannot work.

And I say this as someone who once intended to be a terrorist and studied the subject intensively for ten years.

N. Funk August 18, 2007 6:14 PM

The U.S. is in for a rude awakening, the Arabs who fly their planes into the US in KY and Florida for the horse sales don’t get searched they get a damn police escort to their destinations. As long as the U.S. gov continues to kiss the asses of Arabs with money you will have a gaping hole where security is concerned. The ones you need to start watching are the unelected asshats who are attacking our freedoms from within the government.

no WMD found yet August 18, 2007 8:13 PM

US doesn’t give a crap about safety, they set up and train people to go about blowing things so more money can be spent on arms and the government gets to change any law to their personal benefit, plus any serious issues (like education, health, pension, etc) are swept under the carpet, so screw security, the bombs go off when the White House wants it.

no WMD found yet August 18, 2007 8:23 PM

Here is the complete story which was posted by “derek”

The dangerous Al-Gebra Movement

At New York’s Kennedy airport today, an individual later discovered to be a public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a setsquare, a slide rule, and a calculator.

At a morning press conference, Attorney general John Ashcroft said he believes the man is a member of the notorious al-gebra movement. He is being charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

“Al-gebra is a fearsome cult,”, Ashcroft said. “They desire average solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in a search of absolute value. They use secret code names like “x” and “y” and refer to themselves as “unknowns”, but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval with coordinates in every country.

“As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, there are 3 sides to every triangle,” Ashcroft declared.

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, “If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes.

“I am gratified that our government has given us a sine that it is intent on protracting us from these math-dogs who are willing to disintegrate us with calculus disregard. Murky statisticians love to inflict plane on every sphere of influence,” the President said, adding: “Under the circumferences, we must differentiate their root, make our point, and draw the line.”

President Bush warned, “These weapons of math instruction have the potential to decimal everything in their math on a scalene never before seen unless we become exponents of a Higher Power and begin to factor-in random facts of vertex.”

Attorney General Ashcroft said, “As our Great Leader would say, read my ellipse. Here is one principle he is uncertainty of: though they continue to multiply, their days are numbered as the hypotenuse tightens around their necks.

Author unknown.

Mhmd September 26, 2007 9:12 AM

Interesting discussion. I work in Security for a major US Hub airport. Every time I fly into TLV I spend about 2 hours while they make sure I don’t have a Palestinian passport. When I fly out, I spend up to four hours – That’s not including the checkpoint at the entrance to the airport.

As an airport security guy, I’m interested in the process and the technology. I was trained in Behavior Pattern Recognition and I’ve watched the TLV security people selecting people in line. My impression was that they have a script that they go by, kind of like at a car dealership – the questions are meaningless, they’re just a cover for the actual profiling – I was selected, naturally, got a red sticker – the search and interview were by a supervisor. I came out of that experience convinced that it would have been impossible for me to carry anything on my person aboard – but for the low risk people it was too easy – easier than TSA even.

For those who would like to see this in the US, it wouldn’t happen. It won’t happen because airlines and airport managers don’t see a serious enough threat to civil aviation to justify taking these expensive measures. They, along with TSA are taking window dressing measures to make the flying public feel good, about security, but in reality, there are wide gaps in security that will continue to be open because closing them wouldn’t be profitable for the airports or the airlines, or would inconvenience the passengers.

BTW, many airports are doing away with TSA screeners and going back to Private Screening companies.

ryan r. October 4, 2007 10:56 AM

1) the Ben Gurion airport handles most of israel’s passengers. allmost 10 million per year.

2) there are multiple tiers of security checkups. some visible and some not.

3) the check up prior to the check in line is the “major” one which involves the possible interview. this tier is managed by a group of approx 500-600 security agents.

4) some of them are “bag checkers”, some are “profilers” and some “interviewers”. the ratio isnt constant but favours the “bag checkers” more and more as security technology improves.

5) the basic training for these security agents lasts between one month to two.
much of the learning process is done on the job. it is very rare for such an employee not to have served in the army. and they all go through a long and ardorous screening process prior to being hired.

6) most of them are 21 years old. just finished their service and are saving up for a backpacking trip around the world, or conversly have returned from one and are struglling students.

7) the “interviewing” type agent prides him/herself on keeping the interview as short as possible aiming for a 10-15 minutes. new agents may take up to 30 minutes per passenger. the agent is allowed to ask ANY question. no matter how intrusive and irellevant seeming.

8) the number of passengers being detained for an interview diminished vastly in the past 3 years. and that trend is unlikely to change.

9) ALL passengers go through a series of 5-7 short questions regarding the concern to someone used them or their luggage to place a bomb on the plane.
a two minute process at most.

10) ALL passengers and luggage will undergo technologial inspection.

Martin October 26, 2007 2:31 AM

I’m fed up with the hype that we need all this security. Israeli defense and security contractors have tripled their profits in the last 3-4 years with their passport database database catch-all software, biometrics, weaponry we gave them the technology for, the cloned fence they’re building on the southern border, the training of our security people and police forces to treat us like Palestinians. The hype and bravado that they’re better than anybody else at this. A country with 4.8 million Russian immigrants out of 6 million, and we all fall down to mimic their SOPs . . . when we’re 50 times larger? This messianic panic about the need for red-alert security is wearing thin and making me hate them. And our TSAs. And the DHS. A TSA lived next door to me for four years. Never had to buy another bottle of liquor again in his life. He brought it home from someone else’s suitcase; just as long as it was opened. His wife put in ‘orders’ for stuff she didn’t have yet. They thought it was funny. And so did his TSA friends. They had Passenger Night parties. He told me the Israelis taught him how to do it so he wouldn’t get caught.

So call me cynical. I’m all run out of love for their approach. You dont need to be rude, arrogant, or blowing your testosterone to know what you’re doing. Watch how Valerie Plame does it.

Hagai January 12, 2008 3:36 PM

See: for a related post.

There are two reasons why the Israeli mechanism does not fit well in the U.S.:

First, the population that visits the Israeli airports is much more homogeneous. Most people who travel through Israel are Israelis. This makes interrogation-based classification much easier. Most passengers meet some behavioral profile and the ones who don’t are taken aside for some extra screening. Deploying such a method in a U.S. airport will lead to extra screening being carried out on every second passenger, at least.

Second, I feel that the Israeli’s approach to fighting terrorism is slightly more mature than that of the U.S. Americans started thinking seriously about fighting terrorism 6 years ago. Israelis have been occupied by preventing terrorism for 60 years. The Israeli school of thought is based more on reliance on the human mind, the human sense, and the gut-based threshold. It sees technology is an aiding facility. Americans put more eggs in the basket of technology, and see the human element mostly as an operator of the technology.

Igor February 17, 2008 1:18 PM

One additional difference between Israeli and American airport security is that the Israeli security process begins long before you arrive at the airport. Of course, the name on your ticket is checked the moment you buy it, but for anyone flying in/out of Israel–there are multiple road blocks and document checks on the way to and from the airport. Intimidation is definitely part of it–there is no reason to have so many large guns visibly carried around when concealed pistols would do. Israelis by and large do not mind these measures, just as they do not mind police checks at bus and rail stations or even at bus stops. But for anyone who is not Israeli this “culture of security” can feel very, very threatening, intimidating and unwelcoming. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to spend precious vacation time in Israel–airport security is only part of a larger security machine that pervades everything in society, no matter how mundane, and this machine can be very frightening to anyone who did not grow up with it.

noam February 21, 2008 7:18 AM

Hello from Israel – tel Aviv.:)

and from where i see it , your wish to tighten the security measures around us airports is just funny.

how many Americans die each year from
terrorist activity? (not including Iraq or armed forces of course.


how many Americans die each year because they cant afford medical treatment ? thousands.

and still you want to pour more money into security?
security from what?
do you really think that alqaida needs to SEND someone to the us to attack it?

while thousands of potential terrorists live inside the us for ages.

without giving any ideas to terrorists here , there are myriad choices for any one to cause havoc in the us .
you dont need a mega terror act to catch the headlines.

and on a personal note

for me as an Israeli living with security checks on daily basis, is on one hand nothing ,
because we are sooo used to it,
but on the other hand
when i visit (we) low security countries it feels like nirvana -sheer bliss.
and when i recall israeli approach to life and security while being abroad i notice how ridiculous and annoying it really is.

this is how you want to feel?

being checked on every mega store coffee shop or mall on your way in?

i am truly ashamed of my country when i
hear the innocent tourists where interrogated for nothing while entering Israel.
but Israeli security culture is so embedded within us all that we feel that we cant relay on “soft Europeans” or “naive American tourists”
to know the difference between a friendly Arab and an hostile one.

the threats will decrease when the us government will decide to search for friends around the world , not creating new enemies every year.

and that goes to my government as well.

as for training better security personal
for us airports i`ll say this:
you already have high trained personal

recall all the soldiers from iraq and give them work in security and there you go.

highly skilled men to do the job.

the main modus operandi of the israeli
security system is “gut feeling ” that is based on field experience

anyway have a nice trip to israel if u do , and never mind the bullocks..

Nick September 23, 2008 5:36 PM

I did not read everything, so I hope this is not a repeat.
I currently work for TSA and often read about the security in Israel and wonder why we can’t be more like them, I have even been asked by traveling passengers. There is a lot that Israel does that we could do here in the US, but then there are some things that are allowed in Israel and other foreign countries that would never fly over here mainly because of groups such as the ACLU. With that being said TSA is still a very young agency and has a lot it could do to improve and hopefully one day it will.

Andrew January 5, 2010 3:32 PM

As far as behavior monitoring goes, you could set it up in tiers. The first tier is a technician who gets a couple of weeks of training. He/she is at the airport monitoring passengers and conducting most of the interviews and behavior screenings.

At tier two, there are high definition, color cameras that relay live video to a few centers nation wide with highly trained behavior profiling experts. Technicians can get in touch with the behavior profiling experts who can conduct, or even listen in / participate via video chat, on such interviews. The experts can get in touch with technicians at any time and tell them to pull someone aside or watch them closely, etc.

Like health care, train someone who is able to do 60% of the stuff for 40% of the pay. Only use the big guns — in health care, the physician, and in security, the expert behavior analysis — when necessary.

Alex November 24, 2010 12:02 AM

I’ll just quote something that was posted here a long time ago:

The US and UK systems are mainly designed to intimidate their own citizens. The sheep must be trained to quietly accept arbitrary measures that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate how small and powerless they (the citizens) really are.
Posted by: ZeroZero at July 4, 2007 6:24 AM

“Later I realized it was a necessary part of traveling in Israel”
Sadly, she seems to forget that confidence in your actions and refusing to submit to unnecessary authority are necessary parts of living a full life.
Posted by: Stephen at July 3, 2007 11:52 PM

And welcome to 2010, where the USA’s TSA will charge you $10k for refusing to allow them to touch your genitals as part of a security screening procedure for domestic and international travel.

Bill January 4, 2011 9:03 PM

The reason that the Israeli method won’t scale in the US is that the interrogators are not like TSA workers who are hired off the street for minimum wage. My understanding is that these Israeli security people are the cream of the crop from Israeli military intelligence; they are very bright and highly motivated.

Isaac April 16, 2011 5:59 PM

Seven airports?

As someone who was born & raised there, let me tell you that Israel has ONE major airport. Those 11 million travelers going through annually – I’m willing to bet that 10.5 million go through that airport. The other 6 airports are tiny airports that are rarely used even for domestic travel.

I’d suggest that you study the facts before yelling “scale” and drawing equations.


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