Challenge: Airport Screening Without Discrimination

Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel has a reputation for excellent security. Rafi Ron was the airport's chief of security but since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he's been a consultant to Logan International Airport in Boston. Ron talks to Deborah Amos about whether Israel uses racial profiling to screen passengers — a practice that's generally off limits to federal law enforcement in the United States.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And we spoke to another airport security expert who agrees that scanners have limitations. Rafi Ron was chief of security at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, which does have a reputation for excellent security. Since 9/11 he's been a consultant to Logan Airport in Boston. I asked Rafi Ron if Israel uses racial profiling to screen passengers, a practice that's off limits to federal law enforcement in the United States.

Mr. RAFI RON (Consultant, Logan Airport): We use profiling. It is not the racial profiling. It is profiling that takes into consideration where somebody comes from, and if somebody's home address is Gaza, we should be paying more attention to details compared to, for example, a Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv.

AMOS: So you're looking at where someone has been?

Mr. RON: Correct.

AMOS: What's your assessment of racial profiling?

Mr. RON: One of the problems with racial profiling is that there's a tendency to believe that this is the silver bullet to solve the problem. In other terms, if you're a Middle Eastern or if you're a Muslim, then you must be bad. And if you're a European and Christian, then you must be good.

But back in 1972, Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was supposed to be attacked by a Palestinian, was never attacked by one. It was attacked by a Japanese terrorist killing 24 people. And it was attacked in the mid-'80s by a German terrorist answering to the name Miller.

AMOS: How then do you assess President Obama's decision on security? What you look at, he says, is citizens of 14 specific countries. They get greater scrutiny. That goes to what you're talking about at Ben Gurion.

Mr. RON: Correct. If somebody comes out of Yemen or somebody comes out of Somalia today, this is something that should certainly draw our attention. But I think it would be a mistake to use only that as the single criteria.

AMOS: For those who talk about racial profiling, you can miss a person like Richard Reid.

Mr. RON: Yeah, this is correct. Actually, it did happen, because when Richard Reid boarded the flight, according to the testimony of the flight attendant that stood at the door, her intuition led her to suspect Richard Reid that there's something very wrong with him. And she stopped him at the door, she looked at his boarding card and when she saw the name Richard Reid, suspicion disappeared. And then when he answered some special question in perfect English accent, he became completely innocent in her eyes. So if we needed to prove why racial profiling doesn't serve us well, then there it is.

AMOS: Well, let's talk about the latest one, which has some elements of failure in it. Our NPR correspondent has reported that U.S. intelligence had some information that a Nigerian man was involved in a terrorist plot being hatched in Yemen. And this was before Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab boarded the plane in Amsterdam. So are U.S. intelligence agencies set up to pass on these specific profiles to the airport screeners?

Mr. RON: Yes, I think that the main intelligence failure in the Abdul Mutallab case was people that evaluated the information on the intelligence side simply didn't understand well enough the needs of the people on the ground at the airport, and the aviation security system. And we need to make that transformation in the intelligence community and make people learn and understand much better the needs of the people in the field and make sure that they provide it in due time.

AMOS: Mr. Ron, you really are suggesting a whole different way of thinking about security. This is a very strategic as well as tactical way that you have to look every passenger in the eyes, that a screener has to think about that person.

Mr. RON: Yes, correct. What I suggest is simply to turn around the roles between technology and the human factor. If Abdul Mutallab was subjected to even a very basic interview at the airport, that would have exposed him. What we're doing right now is actually we are running machines and people are there to operate machines. In other terms, people support technology. I say technology should support people. And it should be skilled people at the center of our security concept rather than the other way around.

AMOS: All right. Thank you very much. Rafi Ron is the former chief of security for Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and the president of a consulting firm, New Age Security Solutions.

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