The Cost of Saving on Security

American airline security practices were belatedly brought in line with Israeli standards following the September 11 attacks.

The unclassified version of the American team of inquiry's fascinating report into the attacked on September 11, 2001, is 567 pages long. The 9/11 Commission focused on the American intelligence failure. If the dozens of warnings that had been received had been connected in real time, red lights might have gone on in the right places, foiling the attack.

Avi Dichter, who was the head of the Shin Bet security service at the time, believes that prevention, even without signs of an imminent attack, could have come from elsewhere - in the security establishment's wearying daily work. Dichter believes the basic consideration guiding the Americans before the attacks was financial. In order to save money, they did not place armed guards on flights, certainly not on domestic flights. In addition, the flight security checks were also superficial, which explains the ease with which the 9/11 hijackers passed through the breach.

airport - AP - September 9 2011

"One guard armed with a pistol on each of the four planes would have been enough to stop the hijackers," he says. "The financial savings ended up costing the United States a vast fortune, not to mention human lives.

"When I make this point in talks in the United States, the audience gets angry. I tell them, 'I don't know how to assess 2,973 lives in financial terms - why don't you do it yourselves?'

"Four passenger planes cost tens of millions of dollars, but that is small change. The collapse of the Twin Towers certainly caused billions of dollars in damage, and that too is small change compared to the safeguards installed in airports after the attacks. But even that is not the biggest expenditure.

"The huge outlay is the war in Afghanistan: half a billion dollars for each day of fighting, over almost 10 years. You do the calculation and compare it with the cost of placing one guard on every passenger plane, I tell them."

Others would add to this the astronomical cost of the war in Iraq, for which the official basis was the need to take on the "axis of evil" encouraging regional terrorism.

In the second half of the 1990s, when Dichter, who is today a Kadima MK, was head of the Shin Bet's security branch, Israeli airlines pressured him to spare them the cost of placing guards on planes.

"The airlines claimed the ground check was so sophisticated that there was no longer a need for a guard on every plane. We insisted. I told them that even if the planes had no pilots and the passengers received everything via self-service, there would still be a guard on every plane. Somehow, after 9/11 the complaints stopped."

Adopting Israel's model

As everyone who has boarded a plane for New York or London in the past decade knows, American aviation, followed by its European counterparts, underwent a major transformation after the attacks. In general, airlines adopted the model shaped by Israel 30 years earlier.

The Shin Bet and El Al's security apparatus was created after an El Al plane was hijacked to Algeria in 1968. There were fewer such attempts after the hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe eight years later, but by then Israeli aviation already had a unique screening and security system.

For the five years between 2005 and 2010, Shmuel Zakai, now the deputy director general of the Israel Airports Authority, headed the IAA's security division. Zakai, who devotes much of his time to exchanging information with the American authorities, is impressed by effort made by the U.S. in the wake of the attacks.

"They reached the conclusion that their tremendous arsenal - cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers - was simply not relevant against 19 determined suicide attackers armed with knives, who struck the home front," he says.

"The result was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the formulation of a defensive combat strategy against terrorism from Afghanistan and westward, and a significant reinforcement of the flight security system. Once the United States dictated standards for security checks, the rest of the world had no choice but to follow. Otherwise, airlines were simply not allowed to land there anymore."

The American security apparatus became a national authority with 60,000 federal employees. Intelligence collection was streamlined, and relevant information is now passed along immediately. The new methods included advanced technologies, new infrastructures in airports and personnel training.

Lesson learned

Zakai, who will give a talk this Sunday on the effect of 9/11 on Israeli airport security at a conference on homeland security, sponsored by the Technologies Group, says that at least some of the measures the Americans adopted after September 11 had already been adopted by Israel. "Here, the close connection between intelligence and security existed a priori, because responsibility for both was in the hands of the same state body - the Shin Bet," he notes.

In the past two years, an advanced security system has been installed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, in part created and then upgraded in response to the September 11 attacks and thwarted terror attempts - from the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid to the bombs hidden in printer cartridges a year ago.

"Aviation security is the IAA's strategic goal and legal obligation," he continues. "In financial terms, about 20 percent of the IAA's annual budget is devoted to security. The working assumption is that we cannot rely on specific intelligence to thwart a planned attack on civil aviation. The system has to be skilled enough to prevent an attack even without a specific warning."

The stricter security checks also entail a growing invasion of passenger privacy. "And then comes the question of whether to screen everyone identically, and whether that doesn't reduce the quality of the check," he says.

It is no secret that the Israeli security authorities profile passengers and that Israeli Arabs or foreign visitors may feel harassed when flying through Ben-Gurion airport.

"Israel's method is differential, depending on the risk level," he says. "The Americans ostensibly prohibit profiling potential terrorists, but in practice they find themselves moving toward our approach."