Q&A: Former El Al security chief Isaac Yeffet on border, airport security

He remains skeptical of the money being spent on IT for security

Isaac Yeffet is the former director of global security at El Al Israel Airlines, whose record on security and passenger screening is unsurpassed. At El Al, Yeffet was responsible for formulating the airline's total security system, developing passenger-profiling and -screening programs and training security personnel. Yeffet is also a former senior intelligence director for the Israeli Secret Service, where he oversaw security for all Israeli embassies, consulates and delegations worldwide.

Now president of Yeffet Security Consultants Inc., a New York-based firm that specializes in airline security, Yeffet is fighting an uphill battle to convince anybody who will listen, especially members of Congress, that the billions of dollars being spent on information technologies to secure airports and borders is merely window dressing. Computerworld interviewed Yeffet via telephone from his New York office.

What concerns do you have, if any, about the way the U.S. is going about deploying technological solutions, such as biometrics and other information technologies, to screen travelers for potential terrorist activity? We do not rely on well-trained, qualified professionals to screen passengers. The majority of security screeners cannot identify an explosive detonator. When I was at El Al, the technology that we had helped the well-trained and qualified human being, but it never replaced him.

Today, we have 55,000 security people at 424 airports around the country, but 22,000 of them are working without background checks. At JFK International Airport, 50 security screeners were found to have criminal backgrounds. This is our security?

Put yourself in the position of a border crossing agent. Does the proposed system of biometric identifiers and biometrics-enabled passports still have loopholes? Yes. There is technology that can determine in three to five seconds if a passport is fake or real. But a recent terrorist recruit who has a legitimate passport and identity but who is not on a watch list has a loophole. When a person comes to the border and presents their documents, believe me, through a few questions you can determine who is suspicious. This is how we at El Al were able to arrest a passenger on the ground at London's Heathrow Airport and Zurich airport, both of whom had explosives. You can do it at the borders, too. But we don't want to spend the money in this country.

Can the U.S. achieve the same level of efficiency and success in weeding out terrorists from legitimate travelers as El Al airlines has had? We can do it. We don't have magicians in Israel. We have people like you and me. Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on technology and finding Osama bin Laden, give me a small percentage of that and I will show you what kind of security we can have in this country. At Continental Airlines at Newark Airport, to see their adoption of El Al's security program for all flights to Tel Aviv and Amsterdam, it cost them money. But they recognized that money is important but life is more important.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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