Security vendetta from the north: Is Canada trying to tell us something?

Michael Balboni Contributor
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Two Sundays ago, I boarded an Air Canada flight from Quebec to Toronto. After going through standard screening procedures (bags through X-ray, me through magnetometer), I was comforted by the uniformity and business like way that our northern cousins conducted air security. Just another flight, just another screening. Then, I landed in Toronto and everything changed.

As I left the plane, I was informed that I would pass through U.S. Customs here in Canada before heading to New York City. I found this to be convenient. After picking up my bags from the carousel and receiving a perfunctory set of questions from the Customs officer, I headed to the next area and was surprised that I had to rescreen. My surprise was that the screening was taking place immediately after leaving the customs area. My path would not have permitted me to leave the secure areas of the airport and I had just been screened in Quebec. Sure, I had passed shops selling duty free items and other sundries, but surely there was no bomb making materials there, were there?

Oh well, so the Canadians are being extra cautious, good for them. This thought disappeared however, half an hour later when I was still waiting in line. To characterize this screening as interesting does not do it justice. The procedure here was different from any other I had been through in the United States or in Europe. The lines were not that long but there was an individual search of every passenger.

I was greeted by a pleasant woman who asked for my boarding card, and then walked away with it. This was disquieting because if she were to somehow misplace it, I was not getting on the plane. I removed my outerwear and shoes took out my laptop, along with my pager, and placed it on the belt to go into the X-ray machine. I then stepped through the magnetometer. With the exception of taking my boarding card, standard operating procedure.

When I emerged from the magnetometer to retrieve my items, I was subjected to additional searching. I was instructed to turn on my laptop. I had not had this request in years. This is curious because why put the computer through the X-ray machine? I was then asked to open my briefcase, which, had also gone through the X-ray machine. The officer then went through my papers! This had never been done before over the 30-something flights I had taken in the past year. But then came the most bizarre request. I was instructed to place both hands in my pockets and rub them up and down, and then take them out with my palms up. Where upon, the officer wiped them with a cloth, ostensibly to pick up any traces of explosive residue, which might detect an underwear explosive. As bizarre and unique as this was, this same wipe was not done on my coat, briefcase or laptop. In addition, the officer did not place the cloth into any machine for analysis. This procedure was done to every passenger, which is why the line was so long.

Finally, I was given back my boarding card and permitted to go. During this entire process, not one official ever looked me in the eye. When I asked the bored looking officer what she was looking for in the briefcase, she said, “I don’t know. They just told us to do this.”

Lastly, what was the reason for the inconsistency in screening protocols between Quebec and Toronto? If these additional, if not bizarre procedures are deemed for the safety of airplane passengers, then shouldn’t they be employed for all airplane passengers, regardless of where they are traveling?

In trying to secure a plane from a suicide bomber (which is the greatest threat and the reason for screening in the first place), you should look for the bomber, not the bomb. Someone who is about to die usually exhibits behavior which the trained observer can discern. If this behavior is observed, then additional and more intensive screening should then be undertaken. This is the rationale behind the use of the Behavioral Assessment Screening Systems (BASS). This is the system that the Israelis use and they have never had a successful attack

The answer for this strange and inconsistent security might lie in a more insidious message that we are getting from our neighbors to the north. After the Christmas Day bombing attempt in Detroit, the U.S. security agencies ramped up the security protocols for all U.S. air travel. It lasted a week. As of last Sunday, the additional screening on flights entering the U.S. from Canada continued. Could this be the way of the Canadians pointing out how pointless these extra measures are? Reading the Canadian press over the past few years gives one the impression that though Canadians are just as concerned about their safety as anyone else, they think the U.S. approach is, well, overblown. Is this latest pro forma security meant to annoy rather than deter? In other words, are the Canadians saying to us, “So you want security, fine. We’ll show you security.”?

All this might appear as a simple security dustup, but it underscores the lack of international cooperation to develop a standardized, effective and rational air travel security. As long as we allow these inconsistent policies to persist, we show our enemies that we don’t know what we are doing are we are still vulnerable. The U.S. cannot do this alone. The current aviation security standard for the world was developed through the UN. The fact that a global standard exists is good news, but the bad news is that it provides a false sense of security because it is the lower common denominator of security. BASS screening and advance technologies are not employed consistently or with uniformity. Given al-Qaida’s penchant for attacks on airplanes and the world’s reliance on this mode of travel, we should insist that in order to fly to the U.S., tougher standards be adopted and treaties be enacted to allow security personnel to audit these systems.

What we need to do is to focus less on technology and jobs and more on the human interaction, at multiple stages of the traveling experience. Everyone, from the check in representative at the counter, to the screeners, to the airline personnel should be trained in BASS. The right questions by motivated and trained personnel will take a short time but will add an essential element to the flying passenger’s safety. It will also allow us to stop using systems that cause delays without enhancing security.

Michael Balboni is a principal of Navigators Global. Mr. Balboni joined the firm after a distinguished career in New York state government, spanning 24 years wherein he served in both houses of the State Legislature and served as a cabinet officer for two governors.