Profiling's Place on Sept. 11. (Fair Comment)

Article excerpt

In one of the greatest ironies of Sept. 11, 2001, a group of Muslim leaders was scheduled to meet with the president in the White House at 3 p.m. to discuss a number of issues of interest to them, particularly profiling. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caused the cancellation of the meeting.

Had an efficient system of profiling been in place at U.S. airports that day, the meeting would have taken place. The leaders would have been able to condemn the system in their discussions with the president to their hearts' content. And thousands of innocent people would still be alive.

Tragically, an effective system of selecting potential hijackers for more intensive security screening was not in place Sept. 11, nor is one operating now. The reason: Officials feared and continue to fear accusations of "profiling."

The now-famous July 2001 memo by the FBI field agent in Phoenix in recommended a study of Arabs potentially using aviation training in the United States for the purpose of terrorism. As the New York Times reported on May 4, "FBI officials said there was reluctance at the time to mount such a major review because of a concern that the bureau would be criticized for ethnic profiling of foreigners."

The morning of Sept. 11, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS) program picked out six of the 19 hijackers for extra screening. It is amazing that CAPS flagged even that number. (Another two were examined for having questionable travel documents, and a ninth for traveling with one of those two.) The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was proud that it had designed a system that did not consider gender, national origin or religion in choosing passengers for additional screening. The FAA also decided that CAPS-selected passengers would only have their checked baggage examined, not their carry-on luggage or persons.

Even if airport authorities had examined the hand luggage and pockets of the nine, they probably would not have confiscated their knives and box cutters. There were no regulations against these items at the time, and officials would not have wanted to appear insensitive and politically incorrect by taking potentially lethal weapons from passengers just because they were young Muslim males, like most other anti-U.S. airline hijackers.

Even now, airlines concentrate on random searches rather than targeting members of groups most likely to engage in terrorism. As Donald J. Carty, chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines, recently said, "I don't think great security comes from strip-searching Aunt Molly in Iowa. …