Why profiling can't ensure airline security
commentary froma harrop airline security profiling
Fifty years ago this month, a lawyer living in a posh New York suburb with his former model wife was being investigated for embezzlement. Julian Andrew Frank of Westport, Conn., took out nearly $900,000 in life insurance and then, investigators believed, boarded a National Airlines plane with a bomb and blew it up over North Carolina, killing himself and 33 others.
The case recalled an airplane bombing five years earlier, when a timed explosive, planted by John Gilbert Graham of Denver, demolished United Airlines flight 629 as it passed over Longmont, Colo. Graham later admitted to handing his mother a wrapped "Christmas present" containing the bomb before she left. All 44 on board died.
In 1986, Israeli security agents at London's Heathrow Airport took special interest in a young Irish woman waiting for an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. They thought it curious that the pregnant woman, a hotel maid, would be flying alone to Israel. Upon questioning her, the guards learned that she had a Jordanian boyfriend. Investigating further, they found 10 pounds of plastic explosives tucked into a false bottom on her bag. The bomb could have brought down the Boeing 747 and the 340 passengers inside.
Note the common element in these stories. In no case was the carrier of the bomb an Arab or a Muslim. In the one instance of profiling, astute Israeli guards knew to look beyond Muslims of Mideast origin as potential threats.
Profiling goes only so far. Foes of whole-body scanning -- people who say: "No need to X-ray what's under the clothes of grandmothers or 9-year-old Girl Scouts. Just look at Muslims" -- don't understand the challenge. As some bean-brain said on Fox, "Christians are not blowing up airplanes." But they have ... some wittingly, some without knowing.
Now mull this: Slovakian airport security personnel recently staged a test in which they planted bomb-making material in the bags of nine travelers. The screeners found the forbidden substance in eight of them, but one bag got through and accompanied the unsuspecting Slovak passenger to Dublin. Although the material posed no danger to the aircraft -- it was not attached to other essential bomb parts -- the Slovak government strongly apologized to Irish officials for not informing them of the test.
Apology warranted, but let's also thank the Slovak authorities for showing why everyone and everything that gets on an airliner must be stringently screened. The Slovak who owned the bag had no idea that he was carrying potentially explosive material. Devise a policy that places certain types above suspicion and therefore exempt from "intrusive" screening, and how long before terrorists would start trying to plant explosives on these very people?
It is true that better intelligence would have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding the Delta flight to Detroit. There was no excuse for not "connecting the dots" on the alleged would-be suicide bomber. But coordinating intelligence information is not the same as singling out travelers based on their religion and ethnicity for whole-body imaging. The latter policy offends Muslims without enhancing security.
This is not about "political correctness." There was probably not a single "red flag" attached to the Slovak man. And we've all heard those recorded announcements at airports that warn passengers against taking packages from strangers. Would that have applied to the Christmas present that the Denver women took from her son?
This notion that some people are obviously innocent and some are not is clearly useless in airline security. If airport security ever waves grannies past the body-imaging machines, then white-haired ladies on walkers will be the very ones we should be afraid to fly with.
Froma Harrop's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.