BRIEFING & OPINION
PAUL GIGOT: Here's a question: When does concern about discrimination turn into political correctness and make it harder to fight terrorism? The question was raised again this week. A new report from the 9-11 Commission revealed there were many intelligence warnings about hijackings and suicide operations prior to September 11th, but the airlines and the government failed to take action.
And the Senate moved closer to approving Michael Chertoff as the new head of Homeland Security. One of the issues he'll face is whether safety was and is compromised in order to avoid "racial profiling." Our briefing is from correspondent Celeste Ford.
CELESTE FORD: If there's a potential security threat at Boston's Logan Airport, Doug Fabel is trained to spot it.
DOUG FABEL: If somebody is up there buying a one-way ticket with cash...
CELESTE FORD: The retired air marshal says you look at behavior, not skin color.
DOUG FABEL: -- nervous, not sure, asking the wrong questions about the plane or the flight ...
CELESTE FORD: What about a group of three Muslim men traveling together?
DOUG FABEL: That alone would not be enough to indicate a surveillance report.
CELESTE FORD: 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.
DOUG FABEL: You can't target one ethnic group to improve security. You've got to improve security over the whole spectrum of all passengers.
CELESTE FORD: 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.
BILLIE VINCENT: There's an inadequate level of security being focused on the highest threat passenger.
CELESTE FORD: It's political correctness, according to the former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration. Billie Vincent says good intentions are undermining safety.
BILLIE 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.
FORD: Which means Middle Easterners? Muslims?
BILLIE VINCENT: No, not only Middle Easterner. But, our current adversaries are Middle Easterners.
REHAB ELMOSLEMANY: We were interviewed for a good three and a half hours...
CELESTE FORD: About a year ago, Rehab Elmoslemany, an American citizen, was stopped by security at Newark Airport, then escorted off the plane.
REHAB ELMOSLEMANY: Three men came in to get us, 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.
CELESTE FORD: 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.
REHAB ELMOSLEMANY: I am an American citizen. But was I actually treated that day as one? No, I wasn't.
JULIETTE KAYYEM, BELFER CENTER FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: I think there's no question that some forms of profiling are occurring.
CELESTE FORD: Juliette Kayyem, a counter-terrorism expert, argues that profiling occurs and it is sanctioned under Federal guidelines laid down by the Attorney General after 9-11.
JULIETTE KAYYEM: 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 -- you know, profiling may be acceptable.
CELESTE FORD: In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security has an entire division dedicated to looking at the way federal law impacts civil liberties. The director says profiling complaints are rare.
DAN SUTHERLAND: 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.
CELESTE FORD: 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 --
ELDERLY WOMAN: They emptied my pocketbook, went through my wallet, in between all the dollar bills. I don't know what they were looking for in there.
CELESTE FORD: -- to senators.
TED KENNEDY: You can't get on the plane. I went up to the desk. I said, "I've been getting on this plane for 42 years."
CELESTE FORD: 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 data base 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.
CELESTE FORD: And what does that mean for the public?
BILLIE VINCENT: That means less secure, less safe travel for the public.
CELESTE FORD: Is airport security being watered down by concerns over political correctness, lawsuits, invasion of privacy?
DAN SUTHERLAND: No. 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.
CELESTE FORD: Is it inevitable more security means less personal freedom?
DOUG FABEL: There's a trade off. I mean, you know, a little inconvenience versus saving lives -- to me that's not an issue.
CELESTE FORD: The government's challenge is to respect personal freedoms without allowing political correctness to compromise security. It is a difficult balance to achieve.
For THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT, I'm Celeste Ford.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us for this part of the discussion is Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written for the Journal on security issues often. Heather, welcome to the program.
HEATHER MAC DONALD: Thanks so much, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: You wrote for us in December about this airline case: "Since the charges against the airlines were specious but successful, every pilot must worry that his good faith effort to protect his passengers will trigger federal retaliation." What was the Bush administration thinking when it brought this case?
HEATHER MAC DONALD: Paul, we know they were thinking in a pre-9-11 mindset. But what's scary is they're continuing to think like that after 9-11. And the basic premise of this lawsuit was that law enforcement is always a pretext for bigotry.
Let's look at the facts against American Airlines, which was forced to cough up 1.5 million in settlement. Three months after 9-11, 24 million passengers flew on American airlines. Ten men were asked to go through additional security measures. Most of them were allowed to board right away. Some had to take the next flight. On all of those flights with the 10 men, there were Arab Americans or Arabs who flew without any problems. The government claimed that this was invidious racial discrimination on the part of American, and said without a law suit there will be irreparable harm to the public.
Now this is the sort of thinking we're used to from the ACLU, from various victims' rights groups. But from the government, it's simply preposterous. And the thing that I worry about most, Paul, is that this tells pilots who are acting in good faith under their legal mandate to protect passengers, that they have to second guess their own security decisions.
PAUL GIGOT: It's interesting to me that this hasn't changed, this mindset, since 9-11. Dan, what accounts for that? Why haven't they made that adjustment?
DAN HENNINGER: I think it's because of the pressure in the public square over security and privacy issues, and the pressure on the government to be sensitive to privacy issues and rights and all that. I kind of think the world divides into people who think security is really important, and you have to make some compromises to achieve it, and people who simply don't feel that strongly about those things. And their mindset is never going to change. And no one will resolve that. I don't think there's any perfect compromise to make both sides happy. But what it requires is some leadership from the government to say, "this is the direction we're going in," and fight against law suits like that.
HEATHER MAC DONALD: That's true. But what we're seeing now is the government is in a pincer bind, because when they try to give law enforcement officers discretion to look at people's behavior, those officers get slammed for so-called profiling. When the government says, okay, we'll try something else -- which is to do this smart and use data to try and verify people's identifies -- then as you say the privacy rights advocates say, oh, heaven forbid anybody know my name when I'm flying on an airline -- which was basically what the government wanted to verify, that you are who you say you are. We got rid of that program, which was called Caps 2. So we're left with the dumbest possible security, which is physical pat-downs. And people object to that as well.
PAUL GIGOT: Well sure, it's a huge inconvenience. And they say, geez, I'm taking grandma to Florida for the holidays and she gets searched, but meanwhile somebody else who might look at they might -- a strapping young male -- doesn't because of the random nature of this.
How do you respond, though, to the woman we met that was in the taped piece, an Islamic woman, Muslim woman, who was stopped, and an American citizen, and of course she didn't turn out to be any threat. And she said, "Well, why pick on me simply because I look like I'm Middle Eastern?"
HEATHER MAC DONALD: There was not a chance that she was picked on simply because she looked Middle Eastern. Because again, I can assure you that on many, many flights there have been people who look Middle Eastern that have flown without being stopped. We don't know the facts of this case. Most likely, my guess is, is that her name matched something on a "no fly" list.
I would say to her that we all need to ratchet down our sense of personal outrage a little bit. It's not such a big deal. We don't even know if she was allowed to fly on that flight. Don't get all hot under the collar. This isn't about you, personally. Don't take it personally. This is for the greater public good. And believe me, if we have another 9-11 attack, everybody's going to be up in arms to the government: "Why weren't you preventing this?" So it's a very tough situation the government's in.
But I would say, understand that we experienced the most extraordinary attack in our history on our soil. We have Osama Bin Laden calling on Muslims to attack Americans wherever they can find them. The real problem here is Osama Bin Laden. He's the one that isn't playing by affirmative action, non-discrimination rules. He should start calling on Jews and Catholics to join his crusade. Until he does, though, it seems to me that it is perfectly rational to have some part of the security decision -- not exclusively by any means -- but to take into account apparent ethnic or religious background.
PAUL GIGOT: Melanie, we only have about 30 seconds left. Michael Chertoff was confirmed this week, I guess, as Homeland Security, or is about to be confirmed.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: He's about to be confirmed.
PAUL GIGOT: Will he made a difference in this subject?
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: He could. I think more than anybody in America, Michael Chertoff has thought about these issues. He was in charge of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department after 9-11, so he prosecuted a lot of terrorists. He's been a judge, he's been a federal prosecutor, and he's been a U.S. attorney. So he might handle the job.
PAUL GIGOT: He's seen it from all the sides.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Yes, he's the right man for the job.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay, thank you, Melanie.Next subject.