The Journal Editorial Report | Febuary 11, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
February 11, 2005

Securing the Skies

Celeste Ford visits Boston's Logan Airport to see how 9-11 has caused law enforcement officials to change the ways they assess security threats and she speaks with counterterrorism experts about the delicate balance between national security and personal liberties.

If there's a potential security threat at Boston's Logan Airport, Doug Fabel is trained to spot it. The retired air marshal says you look at behavior, not skin color. "If somebody is up there buying a one-way ticket with cash, nervous, not sure, asking the wrong questions about the plane or the flight," explains Fabel.

Doug Fabel Fabel says law enforcement does not profile, it does not screen passengers based on race, ethnic background or religion. He says it's both illegal and ineffective. "You can't target one ethnic group and improve security," says Fabel. "You've got to improve security over the whole spectrum of all passengers."

But Fabel concedes that security could be hurt if concern over sensitive issues like profiling causes policy makers to take a soft stand. Consider this: after 9-11, pilots on several airlines exercised their right to remove passengers who looked suspicious. Each was thought to be Arab or Muslim. The federal government responded with discrimination charges and multi-million dollar fines.

It's political correctness according to the former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration. Billie Vincent says good intentions are undermining safety. "There's an inadequate level of security being focused on the highest threat passenger," says Vincent. "You're not doing the screening that you should be doing. Pure and simple. It is not as intensive as it ought to be. Or as focused as it ought to be on the higher threat population, not only Middle Easterners, but, our current adversaries are Middle Easterners."

Rehab ElmoslemanyAbout a year ago, Rehab Elmoslemany, an American citizen, was stopped by security at Newark Airport, then escorted off the plane. "We were interviewed for a good three and a half hours," says Elmoslemany. "Three men came in to get us. [They] would not answer my questions, would not answer my son's questions, who got upset right then and wanted to know what we did wrong."

Rehab and her family were planning to attend a wedding in Egypt. She was never given an official explanation for why she wasn't allowed to fly, but she suspects ethnic profiling. "I am an American citizen," she says. "But was I actually treated that day as one? No. I wasn't."

Juliette Kayyem, a counterterrorism expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, argues that profiling occurs and it is sanctioned under federal guidelines as laid down by the attorney general after 9-11. "I think there's no question that some forms of profiling are occurring," says Kayyem. At first glance, she says, the guidelines seem to indicate that profiling is prohibited. "You read this document. It looks like there's no profiling. And then, at the very end of the document it says 'Except for in cases involving national security, or borders, or airplanes, or transportation, profiling may be acceptable.'"

Dan SutherlandIn Washington, the Department of Homeland Security has an entire division dedicated to looking at the way federal law impacts civil liberties. The director, Dan Sutherland, says profiling complaints are rare. "Our law enforcement and intelligence people fully understand you cannot make guesses. You can't draw easy generic stereotypes about people. We have to be a lot more thoughtful and nuanced about who we're looking at, and we do."

But the public's trust in the government has been shaken by well-publicized and seemingly absurd failures in the screening process, from senior citizens to senators. Last year Senator Ted Kennedy was stopped from boarding a plane five times because his name is similar to someone on the government's secret "no fly" list.

The government has proposed a more thorough database screening system that could include personal information such as credit card numbers, home addresses, and phone numbers. Security experts say this would make passenger identification more accurate. But civil libertarians say it's an invasion of privacy. and as a result, Vincent says the government is watering down a critical program.

And what does that mean for the public?

Says Billie Vincent, "That means less secure, less safe travel for the public." Homeland Security's Sutherland denies that airport security is being watered down by concerns over political correctness, invasion of privacy and lawsuits." Billie Vincent"The input that we get -- and we do regularly talk to civil liberties groups -- we try to filter it in, take the best ideas and improve the different operations that we're doing."

Asked if it is inevitable that more security means less personal freedom, Doug Fabel suggests there is a trade off. "I mean you know a little inconvenience versus saving lives to me that's not an issue."

The government's challenge is to respect personal freedoms without allowing political correctness to compromise security -- a difficult balance to achieve.