Friday, August 18, 2006

The 'Profiling' Debate

Del WSJ:

In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress rushed to mandate that 100% of checked airline baggage in the U.S. be screened for explosives. But the recently foiled plot to bring down 10 U.S.-bound airliners highlights what has remained a major concern in international aviation security: bombs carried into the cabin by passengers themselves.

The initial response this past week has been to sharply curtail the size and number of allowable carry-on items. But the inconvenience from keeping things like laptops and overnight bags out of the cabin is great enough that it could deter air travel and do long-term economic harm. Subjecting all of what used to pass for normal carry-on baggage to exhaustive searches has a similar effect, assuming it is even practical in the long run.

All of which means a return to any kind of normalcy in travel is going to require that airport security do a better job of separating high-risk passengers from unlikely threats. However, the fact that we may have come within a whisker of losing 3,000 lives over the Atlantic still isn't preventing political correctness from getting in the way of smarter security.

In Britain, a report in the Times of London this week that ethnic and religious background may become one allowable factor in screening decisions touched off preposterous cries that it would make a crime of "flying while Asian." Here in the U.S., Bush Administration officials seem afraid to even discuss the topic, despite the fact that President Bush himself has said that the threat comes primarily from "Islamic" terrorists.

So U.S. policy remains much the same as the one instituted after 9/11 by former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who refused to consider the use of religious or ethnic background as even minor factors in screening decisions. The result -- with which all air travelers are well familiar -- is a policy of random searches that focuses scarce screening resources as much on eight-year-old girls as on 22-year-old men with Pakistani passports. Mr. Mineta's department also undermined another important layer of security -- the discretion of air crews themselves -- by harassing a number of major carriers on civil-rights grounds after suspicious passengers were removed from flights.

Mr. Mineta is gone now. But on Fox News Sunday last week Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended this policy of random searches on grounds that "if we become too focused on a particular profile, we're likely to be dropping our guard precisely where the terrorists are going to be acting next." Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley made the same case to us this week. So did House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica of Florida.

We think they're attacking a straw man. Nobody is suggesting using ethnicity or religion as the only -- or even the primary -- factors in profiling possible terrorists. But it also makes no sense to take zero account of the fact that every suicide attack against U.S. aviation to date has been perpetrated by men of Muslim origin. While al Qaeda is no doubt seeking recruits who don't obviously display such characteristics, that doesn't mean we should ignore the likeliest candidates.

Mr. Hawley has improved things at TSA. His move last year to scrap the nail-clipper ban so that screeners could focus on real threats like bombs was welcome and important. So too has been the initiative to have more airport-security personnel paying attention to passengers who exhibit suspicious behavior. This is a technique that has worked for the Israelis.

On the other hand, Mr. Hawley goes too far when he asserts that "behavior will give you away regardless of what you look like." That's what cops like to say about lie detectors, too, but liars sometimes fool them. Worse, Mr. Hawley hides behind the screen of political correctness himself when he says that taking background into account would be somehow contrary to "American" and "Constitutional" values.

The law on this is settled, and in the other direction. On multiple occasions the federal courts have upheld programs that treat groups differently when a "compelling" public interest can be identified: affirmative action, minority set-asides, composition of Congressional districts, and the all-male draft have all met that legal test. Yet the same people who would allocate jobs, federal contracts and college admissions by race or ethnicity object to using them merely as one factor in deciding whom to inconvenience for a few minutes at an airline checkpoint. Surely aviation security is a far more compelling public interest than the allocation of federal set-asides.

For those who put civil liberties above all else, even the TSA's behavior observation technique is too much. In 2004 the ACLU sued the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts state police after one of its employees was identified by a similar program in Boston, with a spokesman claiming there was "a significant prospect this security method is going to be applied in a discriminatory manner." Amid this sort of demagoguery, we can see why the Bush Administration would want to dodge a profiling debate.

But someone needs to explain that one point of a smarter profiling program is to forestall what would be far more onerous racial screening if terrorists succeed again. At stake here is also the future of public support for adequate antiterror measures. If Americans conclude that their inconvenience has less to do with terrorism than it does with political correctness, the Administration will find that it has that much less support for the overall war on terror.

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