Learn from the best on security

Very funny. But let's face it. The TSA has made flying one of the most humorless, excruciatingly miserable experiences imaginable. Its knee-jerk reaction to faux crises and ceaseless Draconian directives play right into terrorists' hands by scaring the bejesus out of us. The agency has lavished an astounding $4 billion of taxpayers' money on grossly expensive gizmos such as the zany ''puffer'' device that scans passengers for explosive traces. It's so unreliable that installation has been suspended. Despite the outrageous spending spree, weapon- and bomb-toting federal undercover agents routinely breach TSA security. On a recent trip to the Middle East, Miami and Newark screeners failed to discover a Swiss army knife that had somehow slipped into my carry-on's lining. In Israel, it was instantly spotted. El Al Airlines distrusts TSA's baggage screening and conducts its own at four U.S. airports, including Miami International, a stinging rebuke of this country's air safety policies by the world's safest airline.

And we're supposed to believe the TSA can nab cunning, determined evildoers?

Its frenetic ''the sky is falling'' proclamations of perceived danger and drastic prohibitions of what is brought on airplanes, most recently liquids -- debunked by many scientists -- raise the ire of experts.

''It's not security, it's security theater,'' scoffs security guru Bruce Schneier. ``Sure, it will catch the sloppy and the stupid, but it won't prevent a well-planned plot.''

Evaluate passengers

Last year, Schneier was on a blue ribbon panel studying the TSA's ill-conceived concoction matching passengers with the terrorist watch list. ''A complete mess,'' he maintains. ''Poorly defined goals, incoherent criteria, inadequate testing.'' The panel's recommendations were buried.

The TSA ignores the most important methodology to expose terrorists: incisive evaluation of passengers -- ''Behavior Pattern Recognition'' -- the renowned psychological strategy developed in Israel after Japanese terrorists killed 24 inside its international terminal in 1972. Today, at El Al counters worldwide, highly trained screeners astutely assess passenger behavior and body language and meticulously peruse passports and travel documents. The crucial ingredient is the pre-boarding interview. Probing, intelligence-gathering inquiries are tailored to fit the individual. The more suspicious the subject, the more intense the scrutiny.

Even though the Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs have for years successfully used this technique to collar drug couriers in airports, the TSA drags its feet, ''experimenting'' at only 12 facilities with a handful of ''behavior detection officers.'' Behavioral experts say they place insufficient emphasis on the vital follow-up interview and use the wrong measuring system. Most of TSA's 43,000 screeners wield metal detectors, peek in bags and examine X-rays searching for weapons, which even the agency's director, Kip Hawley, admits are easy to hide.

No racial profiling

''In the U.S., airport security is 100 percent directed at detecting weapons,'' Rafi Ron, former security director at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, tells me. 'On September 11th, we learned a weapon isn't necessary. What remains is the human factor that could be the only thing between us and the terrorists' success.'' His Washington, D.C., consulting firm has taught behavior pattern recognition to several police departments (including Miami-Dade's). MIA is the first and only airport in the nation that has hired him to instruct its 35,000 civilian employees.

Civil libertarians charge such methods unfairly target minorities, i.e., racial profiling. ''That would be professionally stupid,'' Ron argues. ``If we focus exclusively on ethnic groups, we miss what the enemy already knows: Anyone can launch an attack.''

Another horrendous episode may have to occur be- fore effective airport security is truly understood by the bu- reaucrats who administer it.

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