Jan 11, 2010

Profiling is back..!

Airport profiling is back, with a vengeance. In the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed effort to bring down Northwest Flight 253 on December 25, the White House swung into action. President Barack 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 co-operation. He also instituted a number of new (and not so new) directives designed to provide greater security.

Many of these directives were focused on ensuring 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 ensure 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 travelling 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 US. 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-1990s 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 programme 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 US. Not a single terrorist was apprehended by this programme. What NSEERS did do, on the other hand, was make entry to the US 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?"

For example, in its current manifestation, travellers from 14 countries will be targeted, with no provision made for travellers 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."

Discriminatory profiling of this sort damages national security in another way. If the purpose of Al Qaeda, in organising these attacks, is to create panic and deepen the divide between Muslims worldwide and the US, 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 individualised suspicion" - in other words, good old fashioned police work.

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.