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Why the Israeli security model can't work for the U.S.

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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 25, 2010

In this, the autumn of don't touch my junk, conservatives have proposed a new model for aviation security in America.

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"What the Israelis do - and I've flown on El Al about a dozen times to Israel - what they do is the way it ought to be done," says likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

"I traveled to Israel, and I tell you what," says Tea Party darling Allen West, congressman-elect from Florida. "They have very good procedures and you don't have to go through all of these very draconian practices."

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), making the rounds of cable TV, says the federal government "flubbed the dub" because "they didn't take the Israeli model." Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Tea Party godfather, praised the "Israeli model" during a Senate hearing, and Fox News's Sean Hannity proclaimed: "We have a paradigm, a model that is enormously successful, and that's Israel."

The Israeli model for airport screening has, without a doubt, been successful. But do these guys have any idea what they are proposing? Replicating the Israeli model in the United States would easily cost $40 billion a year - and possibly many times that. That would wind up being more expensive than supposed big-government boondoggles such as the Troubled Assets Relief Program and the auto bailout, and it would wipe out Republican promises to cut spending.

Campaign pledges to cut the budget were bound to collide eventually with governing realities - but so soon?

In a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, Israel uses profiling, background checks and extensive interviews to filter out the highest-risk fliers, who are then subjected to searches of luggage and person more invasive than anything the Transportation Security Administration has conjured. The air security argument has been about whether Americans would prefer Israeli-style profiling to the current system of body scans and pat-downs. But this overlooks a more fundamental problem: The Israeli system, even if it could be scaled up, is out of our price range.

El Al, Israel's national carrier, reported spending $107,828,000 on security in 2009 for the 1.9 million passengers it carried. That works out to about $56.75 per passenger. The United States, by contrast, spent $5.33 billion on aviation security in fiscal 2010, and the air travel system handled 769.6 million passengers in 2009 (a low year), according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That amounts to $6.93 per passenger.

The analogy isn't perfect, because security is largely handled by the airline in Israel and by the government here. (In both countries, the government pays just under two-thirds of the security costs.) But this rough comparison indicates that Israel spends more than eight times as much on security per passenger. To duplicate that, the United States would need to spend an extra $38 billion a year.

And that might understate the cost of staffing the nation's sprawling air travel system with highly skilled interrogators; Israel, after all, has only one major airport. In Foreign Policy magazine, Annie Lowrey calculated early this year that if each passenger flying through a U.S. airport were subjected to 10 minutes of questioning by a guard, we would need 3 million full-time guards, at a cost of more than $150 billion a year.

That would more than cancel plans by incoming House Speaker John Boehner to cut $100 billion from the budget this year by returning spending to 2008 levels. It's also substantially more than the combined cost of TARP, which the Treasury said will wind up costing about $50 billion, and the auto bailout, forecast to cost $17 billion. It eclipses the $40 billion for AIG and would eventually top the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, expected to total $360 billion. The $16 billion that Republicans say they'll save by banning pet-project earmarks is small change by comparison.

Implementing the Israeli model also would amount to a massive government jobs program - just the sort of junk conservatives said they wouldn't touch.

Alternatively, if Boehner succeeds in his plan to cut spending to 2008 levels, spending on aviation security would drop to $6.20 per passenger - a tenth of what Israel spends. Ultimately, we can't, or won't, spend enough to emulate the Israeli model, which is why we're using the cheaper method of body scans and pat-downs in the first place.

On the campaign trail, talking about limited government sounded virtuous. In practice, cutting government spending isn't quite so much fun.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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