Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"You're Going... I'm Staying"

The old man, an improbable El Al Airlines luggage security screener, was the first ever to ask me if I’d left my bags unattended at any time. I hesitated. I’d been in Istanbul getting a difficult story; I’d barely seen my hotel room or my luggage. He gently said, “You’re going… I’m staying.”

Only days earlier, in New York, the harrowing film account of an American interned and abused in a Turkish jail, “Midnight Express,” put the fear of God into me; with the taking of 52 American hostages, the Iranian Revolution put radical Islamic fundamentalism before the world’s eyes; and the Turkish military had already put itself in control of Turkey’s government. I’d been aggressive in getting my story, an ethnically sensitive one. Indicating the authentic “Midnight Express” prison to me, a poker-faced state functionary told me I’d asked too many questions and it was time for me to leave.

The old man waited for an answer. Mine was,“Check ‘em.”

El Al has set airline industry standards for security procedures. Every passenger is interviewed individually prior to boarding and can be questioned by as many as three different screeners, all of whom are extensively trained and skilled. They look and listen for evasive answers, withheld information, and anxiety or nervousness. Yes, they have profiling. Yes, they do have armed, plain-clothes sky marshals in passenger seats on every flight. And yes, I’m only scratching the surface of the precautions they take and omitting the technology they employ. El Al was the first airline to resume international flights out of New York after 9/11.

Prior to 9/11, I mischievously used to test the airlines’ security—not a game I would play today. In Moscow, I lifted a bulky suitcase around Domodedovo Airport’s X-ray scanner instead of passing the bag through it. A week later in Uzbekistan, pushing my luck, I hoisted the same suitcase around the scanner again at Tashkent International Airport. No one said a word in either instance and suitcase in hand, I boarded.

In Germany, I fought against passing a film (in a canister) through the metal detector or scanner, and won. Gracious in defeat, Lufthansa officials gave me a seat for it! I put up the same fight in Tel Aviv and was on the ropes when a wise official intervened and suggested I open the can and unspool the reel sufficiently for him to see that it was… film.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) blames President Obama for lacking focus on terrorism and for failing to appoint a head of the Transportation Security Administration. He’s the same Jim DeMint who was at the forefront of blocking a vote on the President’s nominee for the position, Erroll Southers! The logic apparently is: in times of terrorist threat, no head of the TSA is better than a President’s choice. In all fairness to Senator Jim, he suspects Southers would allow TSA employees to unionize. Jim Demented.

Wish Jim had been present at Los Angeles International Airport when I observed an Arabic-looking man in a nice suit and tie hand a package around the metal detector to a swarthy, poorly-dressed man who speeded out of sight. When I reported what I’d seen to TWA personnel at the boarding gate, they were at a loss for what to do. I had to insist on seeing a security guard, who also didn’t have a clue. I practically forced him to “do something.” We boarded and walked through the plane for my flight twice as I looked left and right, in vain, for my suspect. I was content he was not on my flight, but the security guard was too content—for me—that the man was not on somebody else’s. Fortunately, I didn’t read bad news about it.

Another time at the L.A. airport, a former Israeli intelligence agent carrying my suitcase walked with me past the scanner and through the gate without being asked to show the flight ticket he didn’t have… to the entrance ramp to my plane, set the case down and said, “You see, that’s how bad security is in this country.”

So, Senator, pay attention. While you fret over unionization, security in this country is so bad that a machine dispensing airline tickets is asking purchasers the same sensitive questions on a screen that trained security agents ask passengers in order to observe their reactions and determine possible threats! So naturally we have to ask: can a machine tell if a suspect is perspiring… his eyes shifting… her words faltering? Your words are nonsense, Senator, and like the airport machine, self-serving.


  1. Love the title of this post, Ray, and the sharp but simple point it drives home.

    Would that we could only have El Al's level of security here. But doesn't El Al have private, highly-trained security agents, paid by the airline... rather than our usual solution of poorly-trained government agency employees, unionized or not?

    Witness the TSA guard at Newark airport out here, who wandered away from the checkpoint to take a cell phone call as a stranger strolled through the wrong way. And the TSA cameras just happened not to be working. Where'd they find video of the guy? (the airline's private cameras.)

    I understand Erroll Southers does have a great background with the FBI & LAX... except for the part about using government computers to check out his wife's new boyfriend and "misspeaking" about it to the Senate confirmation committee - and that wasn't even part of DeMint's objection... I imagine it is now. But if Southers is the guy to straighten things out, go for it.

  2. Same old story... reminds me of the mid-level FBI agent who reported suspicious activity at a flight school, with "aspiring pilots" learning how to take off but not land airplanes... and the brass dissed him. That was in I believe August 2001. WTF Senator?!

  3. I missed a flight from Milwaukee by arriving at the airport only 90 minutes before my flight..I was on my way to Eastern Eurpoe ---so Cindy and I headed off to Ohare so I could catch another flight. At Ohare I was in a long line going through the scanners and noticed a lady fidgeting with her carry on--something didn't look right. She made it through security without hassle. I told the TSA that she had something she was hiding in her bag. They began a keystone cop chase but got to her--went through her bag and found what turned out to be a mock-up of an explosive. I had enough toime to find out what went down. It turned out she was a government agent and her job was to smuggle her ersatz explosive past the TSA. It didn't leave me feeling very safe.

    A few days ago I read how the Slovakians put actual explosives into the suitcases of 8 unsuspecting passengers. The found seven the eighth made it all the way to Ireland where the police were dispatched to fetch it. Obviously using real explosives was completely nuts--but the pride of the Slovakians who explained they had found seven of the eight was absurd.

    The world has changed. We have a long way to go before we figure out security at home and even longer to figure it out abroad.

    Scan me please!!!


  4. Why is it that elitists will refer to someone like the good Senator as "DeMented" but when someone points to the Obamanation in the White House they run off screaming epithets at that person? Senator DeMint is one of the brighter bulbs in an extremely dim lit (and dim witted) senate chamber. Wouldn't it be great to have a unionized TSA go on strike and put the entire transportation system at risk? Maybe Usama Bin Obama could get some balls and go outside the country for a TSA head...perhaps someone from the Israeli air safety system. Nahhhhh, the 57 Islamic states might find THAT offensive.

  5. I don't know what it will take for airport security to be where it should be, but I hope it's nothing more terrible than what we have already been subjected to.

    As for me, I will gladly subject myself to Germany's uber-generous searches if it makes the rest of the world sleep easier. I just hope I'm not the only one Hans keeping pulling his moves on. For something like that, they should at least offer you a drink while you're waiting.