Posted on January 11, 2010 in Washington Watch

Airport profiling is back, with a vengeance. In the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s December 25th, failed effort to bring down Northwest Flight 253, the White House swung into action. President Obama addressed the nation on three separate occasions, and ordered two comprehensive reviews of policy and practices in an effort to determine what broke down in airport security and inter-agency intelligence cooperation. He also instituted a number of new (and not so new) directives designed to provide greater security.

Many of these directives were focused on insuring that various intelligence and law enforcement agencies were working together, as had been mandated by post 9/11 reforms. The President and others in the Administration were deeply troubled by reports of system wide inertia, and some bureaucratic resistance to change, that had left “dots” unconnected, allowing Abdulmuttab to board a plane to the US, unimpeded. Eight years, ago reforms were instituted so as to insure such breakdowns in intelligence sharing did not occur again. Now the President, clearly upset by what he called an “unacceptable” breakdown, was insisting that it be done. This initiative was well received.

Not so well received, on the other hand, were reports that the Administration had reinstated a form of country-specific airport profiling, targeting passengers traveling from, through, or holding passports from 14 countries (13 of which are majority Muslim, and Cuba). Early reports indicate that passengers from these countries are being singled out for intense secondary screening involving both discomfort and delay.

What is most troubling is not just the discriminatory intent behind this singling out of Muslim majority nations, and the inconvenience and resentment it will create among their citizens toward the United States. More to the point is that profiling of this sort has been used, on at least two occasions in the past, and been found wanting.

In the mid-1990’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented country-specific profiling and also subjective profiling (in which airport personnel singled out people who looked Arab or Muslim for pre-boarding screening). Thousands were harassed and in some cases humiliated with no net gain in security. When I testified before a Congressional committee investigating this practice and urged the committee to inquire from the FAA whether or not these practices had ever caught, detained or found suspicion of terrorist activities–the FAA was unable to provide evidence of even a single instance where the program had produced a result.

Post 9/11, the Bush Administration, under the leadership of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, put in place the National Special Entry and Exit Registration System (NSEERS), once again almost exclusively targeting Arab and Muslim immigrants and non-immigrant visitors to the U.S. And once again, after years of being in place, NSEERS has been a national security failure. Not a single terrorist was apprehended by this program. What NSEERS did do, on the other hand, was make entry to the United States more burdensome and unwelcoming, creating a clear sense among Muslims worldwide that they were being discriminated against.

The question that now should be posed to the Obama Administration is “if airport profiling has been tried twice and failed, without contributing to making the country more secure, then why is it being reinstituted once again?” An effort should be made to listen to the concerns of law enforcement professionals who present a compelling case, arguing that discriminatory profiling is ineffective. For example, in its current manifestation, travelers from 14 countries will be targeted, with no provision made for travelers from countries not on the list. So, all Lebanese will be targeted, but Richard Reid (the failed “shoe bomber”, who holds UK citizenship, will not be screened). Secondly, as the saying goes, “when looking for a needle in a haystack, adding hay to the stack only makes the job more difficult.” Tying up law enforcement resources, wasting thousands of work hours screening thousands of innocent passengers, is wasteful and pointless. And finally, discriminatory profiling of this sort damages national security in another way. If the purpose of Al-Qaeda, in organizing these attacks, is to create panic and deepen the divide between Muslims worldwide and the U.S., the resentment created by a massive profiling regime plays right into their hands.

What law enforcement professionals propose instead is “evidence-based, targeted, and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion” – in other words, good old fashioned police work.

All these are lessons we’ve learned from airport profiling’s last two failed outings, which makes it all the more disturbing that it is being re-instituted. Putting in place a program simply to silence critics or to calm a concerned public, is unacceptable. And then following this, with appeals to the Muslim world and pledging not to sacrifice liberty in the pursuit of security, is, at best, unconvincing.

When the two reviews ordered by the President have been completed, and the gaps in intelligence sharing have been closed, a review of “profiling”, its use and abuse, is in order.

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