By William Fisher
Civil liberties advocates and organizations representing Muslims believe the Obama administration’s decision to require extra scrutiny for travelers to the U.S. from 14 predominantly Islamic countries will lead to practices that are discriminatory and ineffective.
The Obama administration announced Sunday it will subject the
citizens of 14 nations who are flying to the United States to intensified screening at airports, including being subjected to full-body pat downs or body scanners.
Under the new rules, all citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen must receive a pat down and an extra check of their carry-on bags before boarding a plane bound for the United States, officials said. Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — nations considered “state sponsors of terrorism” — face the same requirement.
In a statement, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the giant Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said a majority of all other U.S.-bound international travelers -- not just from the 14 countries -- will also face random and threat-based enhanced screening.
But the agency denied that the new regulations amount to profiling. "TSA does not profile. As is always the case, TSA security measures are based on threat, not ethnic or religious background," spokesman Kristin Lee said.
“We are only as strong as our weakest point,” said Cindy Farkus, the head of global security programs at the Transportation Security Administration. “We are always trying to stay ahead of where the emerging threats might be.”
But the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) told us that the new TSA guidelines were “a political solution to a security problem.” MPAC’s Communications Director, Edina Lekovic, urged the adoption of behavior-based screening rather than profiling, and called the TSA guidelines “a lazy solution that may make us feel good, but in fact merely creates blind spots that make us less safe.”
“These ‘blind spots’ can be identified and exploited by violent extremists. Furthermore, the new policy deeply undermines the Obama administration's stated commitment to civil rights, equality before the law, and a much-needed effort to rebuild U.S.-Muslim world relations,” she added.
Lekovic also disclosed reports she has received from members of her constituency that TSA screeners at Washington DC’s Dulles airport have been instructed to carry out additional inspections of women wearing headscarves. These reports could not be immediately confirmed with the TSA.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the government should “adhere to longstanding standards of individualized suspicion and enact security measures that are the least threatening to civil liberties and are proven to be effective. Racial profiling and untargeted body scanning do not meet those criteria.”
"We should be focusing on evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion, which would be both more consistent with our values and more effective than diverting resources to a system of mass suspicion," said Michael German, national security policy counsel with the ACLU Washington Legislative Office and a former FBI agent.
"Overbroad policies such as racial profiling and invasive body scanning for all travelers not only violate our rights and values, they also waste valuable resources and divert attention from real threats."
The organization said the government's plan to subject citizens of certain countries to enhanced screenings is bad policy, because there is no way to predict the national origin of a terrorist and many terrorists have come from countries not on the list. It cited the case of the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, who was a British citizen, as were four of the London subway bombers.
"Singling out travelers from a few specified countries for enhanced screening is essentially a pretext for racial profiling, which is ineffective, unconstitutional and violates American values. Empirical studies of terrorists show there is no terrorist profile, and using a profile that doesn't reflect this reality will only divert resources by having government agents target innocent people," said German. "Profiling can also be counterproductive by undermining community support for government counterterrorism efforts and creating an injustice that terrorists can exploit to justify further acts of terrorism."
Nihad Awad, national executive director for the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR), said in a statement, "Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -- that's profiling."
He added, “Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -– that’s profiling. While singling out travelers based on religion and national origin may make some people feel safer, it only serves to alienate and stigmatize Muslims and does nothing to improve airline security.”
“We all support effective security measures that will protect the travelling public from an attack such as that attempted on Christmas Day,” Awad said. “But knee-jerk policies will not address this serious challenge to public safety.”
CAIR’s government liaison, Alejandro Beutel, said, "The new TSA guidelines deliver a propaganda victory to Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, since they rob targeted groups of people from their civil liberties based on their ethnicity and country of origin," said "Call it whatever you want, but this is religious and ethnic profiling at its worst."
A number of legal experts were also critical of the new measures.
Georgetown University law professor David Cole said, "The danger with nationality-based profiling is that it sweeps up vast numbers of innocent people, may alienate those we need to have on our side if we are to reduce al-Qaeda recruitment, and takes our eyes off folks, like Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, who are citizens of other countries that don't fit the profile."
Richard Reid, a self-admitted member of Al Qaeda, was convicted by a U.S. federal court of attempting to destroy a commercial aircraft in-flight by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes in 2001. Moussaoui, a French citizen, was convicted of conspiring to kill citizens of the US as part of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In response to numerous calls for profiling from elected politicians, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told National Public Radio, “I'm going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling…I think it's not only problematic from a civil rights' standpoint, but frankly, I think it winds up not being terribly effective.”
He cited a Justice Department 2003 advisory report that concluded, “Racial profiling in law enforcement is not merely wrong, but also ineffective. Race-based assumptions in law enforcement perpetuate negative racial stereotypes that are harmful to our rich and diverse democracy, and materially impair our efforts to maintain a fair and just society.”
A number of transportation security authorities have recommended that the U.S. adopt the screening practices used by Israel’s airports and airlines. El Al airlines, one of the world’s safest carriers, has spent many years developing screening methods based on passengers’ behavior, rather than looks, dress, or country of origin.