Our Townhall colleague Katie Pavlich first spotted this story a couple of days ago, and now the Boston Herald has a fresh report on a new experiment for the Transportation Safety Administration.  Instead of conducting random patdowns or irradiating all passengers, the TSA will try the Israeli screening approach to see whether they can more effectively spot potential threats.  But will it work in the US, and does the TSA have the requisite skills and resources?

Boston’s TSA screeners — part of a security force whose competency has come under fire nationwide — soon will be carrying out sophisticated behavioral inspections under a first-in-the-nation program that’s already raising concerns of racial profiling, harassment of innocent travelers and longer lines.

The training for the Israeli-style screening — a projected $1 billion national program dubbed Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques — kicks off today at Logan International Airport and will be put to use in Terminal A on Aug. 15. It requires screeners to make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.

But security experts wonder whether Transportation Safety Administration agents are up to the challenge after an embarrassing string of blunders — including patting down a 95-year-old grandmother in Florida and making her remove her adult diaper and frisking a 3-year-old girl who screamed “stop touching me” at a checkpoint in Tennessee.

The “embarrassing string of blunders” came as a direct result of a misguided screening policy that relies on random sampling rather than threat detection. When security screeners are discouraged from using their judgment, use profiling to narrow threat detection, and are more concerned with appearances than results, then we get security theater rather than actual security. Taking a diaper off of a 95-year-old invalid didn’t make any flight one iota safer, but it made the TSA safer from criticism that they discriminate in security screenings.

However, the Herald quotes Glenn Reynolds as skeptical whether the TSA has the right people to use the Israeli approach on a large scale. I wrote about that issue when describing my own journey through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv:

Israelis use a multi-tiered security system that relies more on psychology than technology.  Travelers arrive and immediately get queued, bags in hand, to interview lines with security agents.  They check passports and ask a few questions to test responses; if they don’t like the answers or if you fit a profile that indicates a higher risk, you get routed to a more intensive security assessment.  If you get cleared, you then take all your bags to an X-ray station, where a few more questions may or may not be asked.  Once cleared, you then take your bags to the airline ticket counter to check any bags needed — and since Israelis take a rather casual and aggressive attitude towards queuing, that can become quite an adventure.

You’re still not done by this point.  Travelers then have to go through another security check, this one more like the traditional US model with metal detectors and carry-on bag X-rays, but no groping or backscatter scanners.  Finally, travelers have to go through a formal passport review, which can mean another brief interview, and possibly another diversion if the answers indicate risk.  All told, it took me more than 90 minutes to get to my gate, although a good portion of that can be attributed to the ticket counter.

This process works well, mainly because Israelis are looking for actual security problems and not simply sampling for problems.  But the application in the US would be controversial on several points.  First, as noted, Israelis have no qualms about profiling as part of this process.  But perhaps more of an issue is the time and effort needed in this process.  The Israelis have just three international airports through which less than 10 million people pass a year; the US system is much larger, with much heavier traffic.  The 90-minute path to get to a gate would almost certainly be longer in the US (although perhaps not, if the ticket counters are more efficient), multiplied across hundreds of airports and the costs multiplied as well, and most airports in the US aren’t configured for that many people to be held up before the security checkpoints that are already installed.  Travelers here are already frustrated by delays getting to gates; unless we’re really living in fear, I doubt that the Israeli model would be tolerated here.

That process is people-intensive, and training-intensive.  It also requires more room than most American airports have, and probably more patience than most American travelers have.  I’d like to see us adopt a version of the Israeli approach that works, and kudos to TSA for finally trying something new.