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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Napolitano circumspect on Israeli air tips for U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at the White House in Washington.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano played down on Tuesday prospects of adopting Israeli-style aviation security in response to protests at intrusive patdowns and screenings at American airports.

Visiting Israel to assess its streamlined and sometimes controversial system, Napolitano defended her administration's measures as appropriate to the scale and legal requirements of U.S. air travel, and said they were gaining public support.

"I don't see any changes in the immediate future," she told Reuters. "We are always refining our procedure, but the point is that we have fewer than one percent of the travelling public opt out of the system, and so part of what is going on is people adjusting to the changes in airport security."

Following attempted al Qaeda attacks, including by a passenger accused of trying to blow up a bomb hidden in his clothes aboard a flight to Detroit in 2009, U.S. authorities have deployed hundreds of full-body scanners and introduced more intensive frisking. Delays and privacy complaints have surged.

Speaking between a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a tour of Ben-Gurion Airport, Napolitano said "a quarter to a third" of her visit was focussing on aviation, and the rest on other security concerns.

She said the allies "share a common goal" but was circumspect on whether Ben-Gurion's methods for vetting outgoing passengers and cargo might be adapted for U.S. airports.

"There are real differences, for example, in size and scale between Israel and the United States," she said, noting the latter's 450 international airports, many of which dwarf the mid-sized Ben-Gurion with its elaborate state-funded safeguards.

Also being discussed between the two countries is a fledgling Israeli system for identifying the pilots of incoming planes to ensure they have not been hijacked, Napolitano said.


Israel regularly scrambles warplanes to escort in suspect aircraft. Interception tactics are a hot-button issue in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks, but Napolitano said it had not come up in her meetings in Israel.

"No, we are not at that level right now," she said. "This is a more general discussion and exploration of practices."

Arab and Muslim travellers complain of being routinely subjected to extra scrutiny at Ben-Gurion. Israeli security officials say their attentions are guided by a broad range of criteria as to which passengers could potentially pose a danger.

While avoiding direct comment on Israeli policy, Napolitano made clear profiling would not fly in the United States.

"There are some differences in the laws and the legal constraints that we abide by," she said. "There may be some things that can be shared (with Israel) and some things that would not ... The practices and techniques that we use will differ and do differ."

Israeli officials credit Ben-Gurion with employing highly trained security staff with access to real-time intelligence updates and the autonomy to avoid falling into rote methodology.

Napolitano said the United States similarly gathers an array of advance information on passengers to supplement the hands-on searches at airports.

"It's more based on the individual and based on intelligence. For example, we will have unseen behaviour detection officers in our airports, that differ from airport to airport, so predictability is not one of the tools that we use.

"We also share data between countries," Napolitano said.

But she described such precautions as stopping short of any broad-brush approach toward visitors from countries that the United States might deem a security risk. "It is really driven more by intelligence than by geography," she said.