The TSA – Israeli Style Security – The 4th Amendment

Over the past week I have received literally thousands of emails from people who have read my posts on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). These e-mails are as varied in opinion as the fabric of people that weave the United States together.

Of all the emails I have read, more than 300 of them shared a common theme … people who both sought an Israeli style airport security procedure while also seeking a less intrusive airport security experience. I am sure the vast majority of these 300 people have had their opinions shaped by the 30 December 2009 article in the Toronto Star entitled the “The ‘Israelification’ of airports: High security, little bother.

While the Toronto Star article paints an almost utopian view of how airport security should be … it leaves out certain important details that would make those seeking to limit the intrusiveness of the TSA in the United States shudder. With all the arguments regarding the TSA and Fourth Amendment rights, adopting Israeli airport security tactics would make the current state of the TSA seem like something that the late attorney William Kunstler might even approve of.

The Toronto Star article seems to indicate that on the surface Israeli airport security seems almost invisible; the reality is that it is far more blatant than invisible. For those departing from airports in Israel, Israel Airports Authority (I.A.A.) Security Division Officers stop entering cars to ask, “How are you? Where are you coming from?”

Should a response to “How are you? Where are you coming from?” not satisfy the Officers, passengers in the car may either denied entry into the airport complex, or pulled aside for further questioning. I.A.A. Security Division Officers are not looking for the usual nervous response from tourists unfamiliar with these security tactics … but some facial expression or hesitation in the voice that need not be quantified other than they didn’t like the answer. There is no appeal; there is no asking for a supervisor.

Once passengers proceed from the vehicle checkpoint to the terminal they once again encounter armed I.A.A. Security Division Officers. These officers are looking for unusual behaviours, again behaviours that need not be quantified, and should a traveler be stopped and questioned they cannot choose to leave, opt out or avoid the questioning.

Once inside a terminal at an Israeli airport before a passenger may check in, or check their baggage, they are potentially subject to a random search and interrogation, as well as a random hand search of all their baggage and possible  inspection by a magnetometer.

Now … passengers may finally proceed to check in counters, but before passengers may proceed to the check in counters, all passengers must first hand their passport and travel documents to an I.A.A. Security Officer for review and a one-on-one interview. An interview may take as little as 30 second … or can result in a full interrogation lasting hours, include a full ‘real’ strip search and cavity search, as well as a complete background check and check of banking records.

Those selected for a further interrogation do not have the option of ‘opting out,’ or leaving or refusing to cooperate with the interrogation, regardless of the questions being asked. Once a traveler has been stopped for questioning at this juncture, like all previous junctures, they cannot leave; their rights have essentially been suspended.

While the I.A.A.’s goal is to transition passengers from curb to the gate area in under thirty minutes, there are a significant number of ‘innocent’ passengers that find themselves being interrogated for an extended period if time, and others who find themselves being strip searched.

One such example of these searches would be Hedy Epstein, from Saint Louis, a holocaust survivor, who found herself being strip searched at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport after authorities questioned her regarding her visit to the historical cities of Bethlehem and Qalqilya, both of which are in Palestinian controlled areas. This elderly woman, who lost both her parents to the concentration camps, had no recourse but to comply completely with the interrogation and strip search. The alternative was to be arrested for her failure to comply, at which point she’d be subject to the same search and interrogation.

There is no argument that Israel’s airport security in by far the most effective in the world. Israel’s airport security not only incorporates the human element of traveler intelligence gathering, as well as the technology of screening … but also the physical architecture of the airports it exists in.

The United States and TSA can adapt and adopt security concepts from Israel, however the largest obstacles to overcome are not fourth amendment rights issues. In the United States the TSA has proven time and time again to be reactionary rather than proactive, as well it has proven to not create security protocols to enhance aviation security based on the actual threat scenarios developed by its own expert analysts. In Israel people trust those in charge of aviation security … in the United States we deeply distrust and fear those responsible for securing our airports.

So for those people who have written me, and even those who have not, who are stating that they want both reduced intrusion from the TSA and want the TSA to adopt Israeli style airport security … it cannot happen … and it certainly cannot happen at this point in time.

Happy Flying!


  1. TSA will never want to pay staff enough to get the level of professionalism that Israeli security has. Real behavior detection isn’t a 1 day course.

  2. Grace,

    No argument on the BDO training. While BDO training is longer than a day, there are only BDOs in 40 of 494 airports. These BDOs are primarily in large, medium and hub airports, where as almost all DHS, DoD, TSA threat scenarios show a ‘terrorist’ is likely to enter the passenger stream at a smaller airport and work their way into the larger airports.

    The deployment of current BDOs is to limiting.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Very nice summary of what many people do not take the time to find out! With their average screening time of 57 minutes per person, our airports would literally shut down! I think you hit it on the nail not only describing their level of intrusiveness, but pointing out the difference in trust of government.

  4. Also, Israel has one international airport. TLV got 10.9 million passengers in 2009, which would put it 23rd on the list of US airports ordered by passenger volume (somewhere between IAD and BWI.)

    A lot of Israeli-style security uses some good practices, and I believe that behavioral profiling is the only really effective use of profiling, but it just won’t scale to the far larger volumes of the US air transportation system.

  5. How about we apply some of the reasoning applied to other areas by the current administration. Specifically, Ezikiel Emanuel, regarding health care and the cost of extending life (QALY). If we look at the number of deaths, injuries, rapes, burgalries committed by illegal aliens, and then we assume that these numbers could be drastically reduced by the assignement of more resources to find and prosecute these illegal aliens, e.g. by assigning ex-TSA agents. This means that we have to signficantly scale back our security checks at the airport, so the occasional terrorist may be successful. However, the number of air terror deaths is likely to be exceeded by lives saved by a factor of at least 5 times. Better bang for our bucks, less intrusive procedures at the airports, who can complain?

  6. Another balanced and well reasoned post.

    Here’s what I have trouble getting my head around, you wrote…
    “…as well it (the TSA) has proven to not create security protocols to enhance aviation security based on the actual threat scenarios developed by its own expert analysts. ”

    Why would any organization continue to hire people to analyze past, current and potential future security threats only to NOT listen to, or implement, any of their recommendations? The optics are that this is more about politics than it is security.

  7. Vidiot,

    In fact, Israel has more than one international airport. The Israeli Airports Authority in fact presently oversees seven airports, two of them with regularly with scheduled international service. Ben-Gurion Airport is by far the largest, but there is also international traffic from Ovda Airport (VDA).

    Ovda serves non-stop destinations such as Moscow, Paris, Warsaw, London and Helsinki. Ovda should be closed in the near future and relocated to the newly combined airport to serve the Eilat region.

    Happy Flying!


  8. Interesting cite of Ms Epstein.
    She is a little bit more than just a Holocaust survivor visiting quaint historical sites in the Holy Land.
    She is a political activist, supporter of Palestinian causes, participant in demonstrations in the West Bank noted for equating Israel with Nazi Germany.
    So yes, she was correctly identified as a security risk by the Israeli airport team.

  9. You left out the part about mandatory arrival 3 hours before departure. Americans won’t go for that. I’ve always felt completely comfortable on all flights in and out of Israel. I don’t mind arriving plenty early but the average public would be up in arms.

  10. Fish, thanks for this explanation. Suggestion: how about putting a Twitter button on your blog so people can easily retweet your posts and follow you on Twitter?

  11. Kyle,

    Hedy Epstein is an holocaust survivor, an attorney, she helped try and convict medical doctors that carried out experiments on those on concentration camps at the Nuremberg Medical Trials and yes … she is a human rights activist. Her history, travel history and background checks in no way indicate she is a threat of any kind to aviation security.

    Happy Flying!


  12. Fish – while I agree that full-style “Israelification” of security won’t work in the U.S., why can’t at least some of the techniques used by countries like Israel be used here to accomplish the stated objective, i.e. reduce intrusiveness yet increase the overall level of security? I’m referring specifically to risk-based profiling before ever arriving at the airport. Base it on a variety of factors – travel history, criminal history, known association with terrorist organizations, etc. Then, save the more intrusive security measures to those whose profiles raise a flag, who set of an alarm at a metal detector, or who have suspicious items in their hand baggage. Everyone else gets waved through, thus saving fellows with prosthetic devices or urostomy bags from humiliation (unless something else in their profile warrants further scrutiny).

    You do bring up a very important point, though, and that is the trust (or lack thereof) the public has in the TSA. I’m not particularly bothered by the body scanners themselves, but I will admit the constant TSA misinformation/disinformation about the capabilities of the scanners, as well as all the stories you hear about U.S. government employees abusing private information that’s supposed to be “protected”, causes me to distrust their motives deeply. Would I trust the TSA to use the background information they pull on me properly and properly safeguard that information? Good question that, quite frankly, I can’t answer.

  13. Fish,

    Thanks for the correction re: VDA. I hadn’t heard of that, and am glad to be informed.

    My point stands, though — add the roughly 10.9 million pax volume that TLV saw in 2009 to VDA’s or even the combined VDA/ETH traffic, and you’re still getting a much smaller volume than most US international airports. Israeli-style security just won’t scale well.

    (I couldn’t track down the passenger volumes for VDA or the other IAA airports, as their website doesn’t seem to be showing them. Wikipedia reports 82,000 international passenger movements at VDA for 2005, however, citing the (non-working) IAA page.)

  14. I am an İsraeli and most of the time I was going through the airport security in Ben Gurion with no problem. However, since June 2010 İ am being subjected to long interrogations and personal checks, because my boyfriend is a Turkish citizen. Last time İ was held there for 2 hours, they confiscated my camera, saying that they could not identify whether it could potentially be a bomb and İ almost missed my flight. Now my camera is still in the airport, I feel being dıscriminated and humiliated from the way they treated me and although İ fınd it emotionally difficult to go through this check over and over again; I have no choice since my family live in Israel. Now, about their so-called singling-out passengers: I am not so sure about 2 percent, it seems much more. Secondly, the logic behind it is absolutely unclear. If I was working for Turks İ am not likely to blow off a Turkish Airlines plane; and even if I am why would İ reveal that İ have Turkish friends in Istanbul? I could have just passed easily with and Israeli passport saying that İ am going there as a tourist and will stay there in a hotel. If they think that a 29-years old woman with a child can blow off a Turkish Airlines plane by hiding a bomb in a Nikon D90 camera, then, I am sorry, but I would never call such people smart or likely to know what they are looking for. About the efficiency: with all the equipment that they have I estimate that it is possible to check the camera in 2 hours. Either they are not efficient or they simply they want to abuse the rights of the passengers and do it on purpose. I was told that my camera was being confiscated 15 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave, so I didn’t have much time for debates. But now I regret that I gave up and let them treating me like this, which among other things costed me another 500 dollars – the price of a new camera, as I needed a camera during these 4 weeks in Turkey. Setting the racial discrimination aside (and believe me this is one of the main factors by which they single out passengers), violating basic rights such as confiscating private belongings of innocent people is absolutely unacceptable.

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