Experts Question Efficacy of Profiling

Created: January 12, 2010 06:04 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/12/E-Obama-020909-0464.jpgPresident Barack Obama (WDCpix)

The enhanced screening of airline passengers from the Muslim world in the aftermath of the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253 has set off a shockwave of disappointment from supporters of President Obama and surprise from security experts. Few believe, based on experience, that de facto profiling is an effective anti-terrorism tactic. But they do view it as playing into al-Qaeda propaganda that the United States is at war with Islam — propaganda that Obama has attempted to publicly refute.

“The marginal returns in terms of increased security from most new measures to check travelers eight years after 9/11 are likely to be less than their costs in terms of inconvenience, privacy and the fears of innocent Muslims,” said Philip Heymann, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration who consulted with the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies on efforts to reform interrogations for the Obama team.

[Security1]Throughout his presidential campaign and first year in office, Obama took pains to emphasize that his perspective on counterterrorism did not imply a hostility to Islam — a credible case, given his childhood experience in Indonesia and the baseless rumors that he is actually a Muslim. In recent interviews, Obama aides have said the president considers his Cairo speech to be one of the highlights of his tenure. “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” he told an audience at al-Azhar University in June.

But amid persistent political criticism of Obama’s approach to counterterrorism two weeks after the failed attack, the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that citizens of 14 nations flying to the U.S. will face additional scrutiny on an indefinite basis, including full-body pat-downs and increasing inspection of their carry-on luggage. Only one of those nations, Cuba, is neither a Muslim nation nor one with a substantial Muslim population. Several of those nations, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been the subject of extensive efforts by the Obama administration to convince their citizens that the U.S. aims to help them.

The rules presume that citizens of these nations pose the greatest risk of attempting a terrorist attack aboard a plane. But the December 2001 attempt to detonate American Airlines flight 63 came from Richard Reid, a British citizen of Jamaican heritage. Similarly, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was indicted last week for the attempt on Northwest flight 253, was a Nigerian evidently radicalized in Britain. Nigeria has not been on any U.S. watchlist for terror before the issuance of the new Department of Homeland Security rules.

As a result, Bush administration officials Michael Chertoff and Mike Hayden publicly oppose profiling. Abdulmutallab “would not have automatically fit a profile if you were standing next to him in the visa line at Dulles,” Hadyen, a former CIA and NSA director, said on ‘Meet The Press’ on Jan. 3. “One of the things al-Qaeda’s done is deliberately tried to recruit people who don’t fit the stereotype, who are Western in background or appearance,” Chertoff, a former secretary of Homeland Security, said on the same program.

In his remarks Thursday after receiving preliminary reviews about the attack, Obama assured the public that his administration would “not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society liberties values that we cherish as Americans,” adding “that is exactly what our adversaries want, so long as I am , we will never hand them that victory.” He did not acknowledge any tension between his comments and his administration’s new profiling rules.

But Kalsoom Lakhani, a Pakistani citizen who graduated from American schools and directs a Pakistan-based philanthropic organization, said the new rules make her “nervous to travel.” She pointed to an August poll from Pew finding that Pakistan was an exception to Obama’s global popularity, with only 9 percent of Pakistanis considering the United States to be their partner.

Just two weeks before Abdulmutallab’s failed attack, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed “solidarity with the people of Pakistan” at a gala thrown in New York by a new outreach group, the American Pakistan Foundation. “I believe that you are helping to lay the foundation for a new era of partnership not only between our countries, but between our people,” she continued, themes that her special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has sounded throughout 2009. Yet Pakistanis attempting to visit the U.S. will now face the mixed signal of being singled out for added scrutiny at airports. (In Cairo, Obama pledged, “we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America.”)

Lakhani questioned whether the administration’s profiling would have negative implications for Muslims living in America as ell. “If Muslim-Americans like [Fort Hood shooter] Nidal Hasan and the five Americans arrested in Pakistan are turning to radical Islam, is that symptomatic of Muslim-Americans feeling out of place and marginalized in America?” she said in an email. “Do we exacerbate that problem by the way we react to these incidents (CNN’s ‘Homegrown Terror’ special for example), acting as if they are a stain on the entire Muslim community or Islam rather than the crimes of individuals who are radicalized on the fringe?”

Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, added, “If you employ racist policies, it shouldn’t be surprising if that engenders hostility rather than cooperation.”

German, now a legal counsel to the ACLU, said he regretted Obama’s apparent capitulation to a political climate that still features collective suspicion of Muslims. “Our politicians aren’t grown up about it,” he said. “I have tremendous confidence in the intelligence of the American people when they’re given correct information about terrorism.”