Obama Backs Away From Ethnic Profiling at Airports
Ethnic profiling doesn’t have many open defenders — Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is a notable exception — so it was surprising that part of the Department of Homeland Security’s response to the near-detonation of Northwest flight 253 was to single out citizens of 14 mostly-Muslim countries for special scrutiny at airports. As a counterterrorism measure, it was dubious; as a diplomatic issue, it was counterproductive. But it’s also on its way out the door. Whether its replacement is an improvement remains to be seen.
Anonymous administration officials previewed a policy shift to The Washington Post, the [Los Angeles Times](http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/middleeast/la-na-flight-screening2-2010apr02,0,2055663.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/middleeast+(L.A.+Times+-+Middle+East)) and The New York Times that will stop citizenry-based targeting and move to passengers whose travel patterns or identifying information matches even fragmentary intelligence reports about potential terrorist activity. Those officials describe the new extra-screening system as “much more intel-based.” The Los Angeles Times explains that the standards employed will not require fulsome or exacting matches between an air traveler and a pattern of suspicious behavior to kick in:
In many cases, the U.S. might learn of a possible attack by someone about whom it has only fragmentary information — a partial name, nationality, certain facial features or details about recent travel.
Such information will be forwarded to airlines and foreign governments by the Department of Homeland Security as it is received and will be used to guide them in deciding which travelers to subject to special screening, the official said.
That’s clearly intended to be responsive to the failure in stopping Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding flight 253. There was a fair amount of fragmentary intelligence about both Abdulmutallab himself — including fragments of his name — as well as intelligence about the sort of person al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was considering for a terror attack. Part of the problem was that information about Abdulmutallab didn’t meet the standard of “specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion” necessary for placing him on the prelude to the no-fly list. These measures wouldn’t require such specificity for singling out an air passenger for screening.
One issue worth considering: during the January wave of congressional hearings on what went wrong in the Abdulmutallab case, officials testified that there are still basic problems accessing the various government watchlists, including a persistent difficulty with actually performing basic search functions that Google can perform in microseconds. If that remains the case, how likely will it be that the DHS officials charged with performing the new airport scrutiny will possess the relevant intelligence necessary for determining who should qualify for special screening?