Saturday, December 12, 2009

TSA and National Origin Profiling

According to a document inadvertently leaked by the TSA, "Individuals with a passport from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, or Algeria should be given additional screening."

It's not racial or religious profiling per se, but it appears government policy has the effect of subjecting many Muslims to a higher level of scrutiny than other passengers. Except for Cuba and North Korea, all the other countries on the list have Muslim-majority populations.


Jamie said...

I'm sure Iran subjects people from the USA to higher scrutiny as well... Not because Iran necessarily dislikes Christians but because Iran and the USA happen to have a beef at the moment.

Not knowing the individual history of a number of those countries, they appear to largely be countries we have currently / previously had a beef with. Not sure what is the controversy...

K_Yew said...

@Jamie: the only rational reason to subject passengers to additional screening based on their national origin is if doing so increases safety or the chances of catching illegal activity. There is no evidence that having an Iranian or Sudanese passport increases the likelihood of terrorism or violence.

For example, there have been no Iranian hijackers, but British citizens (Richard Reid) have hijacked planes. Should we subject British citizens to additional screening?

We may have a higher chance of catching money launderers if we subjected all Swiss passport holders to extra screening and questioning. Should we subject the Swiss to additional screening when they travel to the U.S.?

Let's move on to your idea: that it is okay to subject passengers to additional screening if America has "a beef" with that country "at the moment." There is precedent for this idea--I can't remember the exact details, but after the U.S. started fingerprinting Brazilian travelers, Brazil started fingerprinting all American travelers. I guess I don't see the point of subjecting passengers of a country to additional hassles just b/c their respective governments don't get along.

Perhaps you think it makes sense to discriminate on the basis of national origin when countries have issues with each other, b/c then they may send their citizens to make trouble in the other country. If so, assuming the countries involved are not complete idiots, wouldn't they supply their secret agents/troublemakers with fake passports or just recruit agents from another country?

I don't want to be controversial, but it appears you either believe that passengers should become pawns in political tiffs unrelated to safety considerations, or it is okay to discriminate on the basis of national origin even when there is no measurable increase in safety. I hope I am wrong.

Jamie said...


You make a fair point that I should have been more precise in my statement. I believe it is reasonable to subject travelers to increased scrutiny if 1) we have or recently have had a beef with a country and that country is known or suspected to be a state sponsor of terrorism or 2) individuals in that country have a beef with the US and are known or suspected to be terrorists.

Iran *is* classified as a state sponsor of terror (as is Sudan, incidentally). By the definition of what a state sponsor of terror is, that is, IMO, a reasonable basis for subjecting people from that country for increased scrutiny. Given Iran's recent suspicions about USA citizens desiring to spy on them I would fully expect to be subject to increased scrutiny were I to travel to Iran. I wouldn't like it, but I would also understand the basis of doing so and consider it reasonable.

I think it is pretty clear that the case of Richard Reid the fact that he was a British citizen was incidental to the reason he was a threat. However, I admit that I am not familiar with the degree of extremism in that country that might lead to further incidents of that nature. If extremism of that sort has reached such a level in that country that the average citizen from that country is deemed more likely to be a terrorist (or one of the other categories I lay out below) than an average traveler then we should subject them to increased scrutiny.

If the purpose of airport screening was to catch money launderers, or there was a reason to believe that money launderers posed a national security danger, *and* there was reason to believe that scrutiny by airport security was a method with a reasonable chance of uncovering money launderers *and* there were a reason to suspect that money launderers might indeed be traveling to the USA then certainly we should subject Swiss citizens to such increased scrutiny.

I would hope it is sufficiently difficult to forge passports to discourage countries from simply fabricating the traffic documents completely? Honestly I have no idea about this point. If it is feasible to do so then this poses a significant national security threat and indeed dwarfs all other concerns. I remember seeing some episode of a TV show (60 minutes type) which discussed the ease with which one could get faked documents from one of the South American countries and then take land travel (not airplane travel) to make it into the US with little scrutiny.

I'm sure you would never say anything simply to be controversial ;). However, I'm still left with my original question -- what is the controversy here? The policy is not being applied exclusively or to all countries with majority Muslim countries (Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia etc. are missing) nor does it seem to be applied to countries with only or to all countries with particular ethnicities. Therefore, those don't appear to be the basis for the policy. There is at least minimal reason to believe that people either originally from, or traveling by way of, those countries could pose dangers for 1) terrorism 2) espionage or 3) defection. So I'm forced to conclude that it is a, possibly misguided (why is Saudi Arabia *not* on that list?), policy geared towards national security. If it were a policy based around racism / religious discrimination then it seems like it is simply applied to a random set of countries which doesn't make sense to me.

K_Yew said...

@Jamie: there are several major problems with your support of targeting travelers based on their national origin/passport.

1) There is no data whatsoever indicating that someone with a particular passport is more or less dangerous than someone with another kind of passport (see also my previous example of British traveler Richard Reid). If you know about any reliable data contradicting the previous statement, please publish a link.

2) You are clearly punishing individual citizens of a country for the actions of their government. For purposes of airport security, there is no relevant connection between the actions of a person's government and the future actions of an individual traveler. For example, if Bush II's actions killed 100,000 Afghan civilians, does that mean American civilians now pose a higher threat to Afghanistan's security? If Hong Kong turns a blind eye to money laundering, does that mean that individual travelers from Hong Kong should be screened for money laundering activities?

At the end of the day, your criteria rests on an acceptance of collective punishment, a theory that was used by Americans to support the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

3) There are ways of increasing security that do not require national origin to be used, such as watch-lists, fingerprinting, photo scanners, etc. Just because a government places a particular entity on its terror list doesn't mean an individual traveler from that country poses a higher threat. For example, if America has Hezbollah on its terror list, what does that have to do with anyone who is not a member of Hezbollah? If you argue that the government should screen all members of Hezbollah, that makes sense. But let's say America places the Irish Republican Army on its terror list. Would you advocate additional screening for all persons with Irish passports? Why stop there? Why not have additional screening for all persons who are traveling from Ireland? Even that option--as troubling as it is--makes more sense than going by an individual's passport.

4) Do you really think a terrorist or a spy will actually bring anything that will set off airport security? Terrorist Mohammad Atta was interviewed several times by cops and government agents before 9/11. Until 9/11, he apparently had a clean record, except for some parking tickets. Think about it: countries and entities that want to do harm to another country will send cunning people who can bypass airport screening tools. They will not send someone carrying a suitcase filled with bomb materials.

Any additional screening on the basis of a passport will produce not a whit of increased safety--it will just make hardcore terrorists laugh at our ineffective attempts to protect ourselves. I wouldn't mind if the consequences stopped at the loss of travelers' time, but I do mind because the policy will cost us more money; anger innocent, law-abiding citizens; and take time away from more effective methods of catching potential terrorists.

In conclusion, there is no logical or proven relation between a country's placement of a particular group on its terrorist list and a higher risk from the individual citizens who happen to live in the country that includes that particular group. To the extent there is a higher risk, we are unlikely to catch any terrorists based on the type of passports they use, because an effective terrorist will a) wait until coming into the target country before committing terrorism; or b) will create a terrorism plan that doesn't require going through airport security.