THE BLOG
08/17/2006 07:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Profiling: Street Smarts by Any Other Name

Five years removed from 9/11, it's time to admit that 'profiling' is not a dirty word. Profiling is street smarts by any other name. It's the common-sensical recognition that while America is not threatened by an entire community, she is under siege by a certain element of an identifiable group, and law enforcement needs to target its resources accordingly.

The failure to profile is a dereliction of duty on the part of an Administration that has otherwise been willing to incur the wrath of civil libertarians as it aggressively fights the war on terror. Only last week, in the aftermath of the thwarted attack emanating from the U.K. did the President appear to take a step in the direction of profiling when at last, he acknowledged with specificity those who threaten our survival:

"This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."

Hopefully now there will be a long overdue confrontation of the Emperor Has No Clothes charade whereby law enforcement is mandated to ignore the nude barbarism of radical Islam. The arrest of two dozen in connection with the latest, failed plan should change that. After all, they are the same old, same old. I refer to Messrs. Ali, Ali, Ali, Hussain, Hussaind, Hussain, Islam, Kayani, Khan, Khan, Khatib, Patel, Rauf, Saddique, Sarwar, Savant, Tariz, Uddin and Zaman. To a person they are Muslim men.

Where some would highlight the slight differences among them - class, upbringing and whether they were raised Muslim or converted to Islam - I see the commonalities. Equally significant is who they are not.

They are not Americans. They are not urban blacks. They are not suburban whites. They are not Jews. They are not Hispanics. They are not members of the U.S. military, women, senior citizens or young kids. At a minimum, it is time to profile by exclusion.

Some are still standing in the way. Take Paul Stephenson, the Scotland Yard Deputy Commissioner, who, on the day the plot was made known, said:

"What I would want to say, and you would expect me to say about this, is this is not about communities. This is about criminals. This is about murderers; people who want to commit mass-murder. This is not about anything to do with any particular community."

Wrong, Deputy Stephenson, I would not expect you to say that. And while this is not about a particular community, it most certainly is about people within a particular community. More appropriate from London were the observations of Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Hastings correctly noted "in every other area of criminal activity, we accept that some people are more deserving than others of suspicion." He pointed out that police do not question women when seeking a rapist, don't round up short West Indians when pursuing a six foot white burglar, and don't arrest an elderly widow for car theft when security cameras captured an Asian male.

For years I have been advocating that the United States use this kind of street smarts in the war against radical Islam. I did not begin with any particular knowledge of the subject. To the contrary, whatever understanding I've obtained sprang from a common occurrence in connection with a routine flight.

In March of 2004, my family of six was heading to Florida for Spring break. At a ticket counter in the Atlantic City airport, my 8-year-old son was singled out for "secondary" or random screening.

I knew it was absurd, but I didn't complain, figuring it was the small price we all have to pay post 9/11. Common sense told me it was a terrible waste of precious resources.

Soon after my son's screening, Dr. Condoleezza Rice testified in front of the 9/11 Commission. Commissioner John Lehman floored me when he asked Dr. Rice this:

"...were you aware that it was the policy, and I believe it remains the policy today, to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that is discriminatory?"

I wondered what in the world he was talking about with his quota question. So I called Secretary Lehman and asked him. He told me that airline executives had said as much in testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

Lehman faulted political correctness and said "no one approves of racial profiling. That is not the issue, but the fact is that Norwegian women are not, and 85-year-old ladies with aluminum walkers are not, the source of the terrorist threat. And the fact is, our enemy is the violent Islamic extremism. And so the overwhelming number of people that one needs to worry about are young Arab males."

Lehman was dead on. When I reported what Secretary Lehman told me in the Daily News, I incurred the wrath of the DOT. They said I was "wildly incorrect" in my reporting, where I had simply repeated the words of a 9/11 Commissioner. Then I had a chance encounter with Herb Kelleher, the legendary, ballsy, founder of Southwest Airlines. He confirmed for me some of what Lehman had raised with Dr. Rice. So I kept digging. Later I learned the specific basis for Lehman's question regarding a quota system.

Edmond Soliday, the former head of security for United Airlines, testified before the 9/11 Commission that "...a visitor from the Justice Department who told me that if I had more than three people of the same ethnic origin in line for additional screening, our system would be shut down as discriminatory." Soliday clarified his comments to investigative author Paul Sperry when he said that it was actually the assistant general counsel of the DOT. Soliday said the man "told me that if I had more than three people of the same ethnic origin in line for additional screening, our system would be shut down as discriminatory." The DOT viewed any human profiling as discriminatory, even if it is based on statistical probability. As a result, Soliday said that United "loaded up the system with randoms to make it mathematically impossible to get three ethnics in line at the same time", including, "soccer moms, Girl Scouts, and even little old ladies with walkers."

And there you have it, the origin of a PC policy that has hindered our ability to protect the skies on 9/11 and through today.

What I have learned since 9/11 about the absence of profiling in America's war on Islamic fascism has filled two books that I have authored. Since 9/11 we have seen the Madrid train bombings, the Bali nightclub bombings, London bombings on 7/7 and the most recent threat of a terror attack in the UK. My thesis remains unchanged. We are threatened by individuals who largely have race, gender, religion, ethnicity and appearance in common. To the extent we do not take that information into account as we seek to prevent a repeat of 9/11, we are still flying blind.

Among the more salient things that I have learned:

*In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our DOT fined four U.S. commercial carriers millions of dollars for alleged discrimination as they sought to prevent a repeat of the terrorism. Stunningly, those punished include United and American Airlines which lost two airplanes apiece and a combined total of more than 30 of their own personnel on 9/11. The DOT, under Norman Minetta, initiated discrimination complaints against both of them that were settled for $1.5 Million apiece. I read the litigation files. The fact patterns were similar: Picture a pilot in the cockpit ready to pull back from the gate. He's got a schedule to keep. And a statutory obligation to see to it that anyone who is perceived to be, and here are the magic words from the federal statute, "inimical to public safety" is removed from the aircraft. Then comes the knock on the cockpit door and the pilot is told either by someone from the flight crew or someone in law enforcement that 'so and so' in seat '3C' is of Middle Eastern descent, they have been acting in a suspicious fashion, and their name is either on or similar to a name which is on a federal watch list. "What should we do, Captain?" And to the extent that the pilot agrees to have the passenger questioned while he goes ahead and departs, our government perceived his actions to be discriminatory and initiated legal proceedings against his airline. American Airlines, United, Continental and Delta were all victimized by the government.

*We have profiling to thank for the fact that the presumed 20th hijacker was prevented from entering the United States. Mohammed al Khatani was denied entry on August 4, 2001 at the Orlando International Airport. Al Kahtani was then a Saudi national who came before a very alert secondary inspections officer named Jose Melendez-Perez. What caused Melendez-Perez to slow him down? As he told The 9/11 Commission about Kahtani, "he just gave me the creeps". Melendez-Perez was profiling, thank goodness. When he asked al Kahtani questions, the man's story didn't add up.

*Michael Tuohey saw two of the hijackers on the morning of 9/11 and had the same instinct. Tuohey worked the ticket counter at the airport in Portland, Maine for US Airways. He'll never forget that particular day amongst his 34 years of employment. At 5:43 a.m. on a bright Tuesday morning, two men wearing sport coats and ties approached his ticket counter with just 17-minutes to spare before their flight to Boston. He thought this pair was unusual. "It was just the look on the one man's face, his eyes," Tuohey told me. In front of him were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari.

"I looked up, and asked them the standard questions. The one guy was looking at me. It sent a chill through me. Something in my stomach churned. And subconsciously, I said to myself, 'if they don't look like Arab terrorists, nothing does'." "Then I gave myself a mental slap. In over 34 years, I had checked in thousands of Arab travelers and I never thought this before. I said to myself, 'that's not nice to think. They are just two Arab businessmen'." And with that, Tuohey handed them their boarding passes.

Atta and Omari arrived in Boston at 6:45a.m., where they were joined by three accomplices. The five then checked in, and boarded American Airlines Flight No. 11 bound for LA. At 8:46 a.m., it hit the North Tower. Now here is the irony. While Michael Tuohey will forever wonder what he should have done, the reality is that had he taken action, he would have been punished by our government just as our government fined United, American Airlines, Continental and Delta.

*The FBI agent who authored the famous pre-9/11 memo now known as the "Phoenix Memo" - a recommendation that the State Department coordinate with the FBI so that flight students from Middle Eastern countries could be investigated - made his first public remarks after 9/11 and said that profiling concerns hurt the anti-terrorism effort. Ken Williams is the FBI agent who wrote the memo dated July 10, 2001, and he offered those sentiments in his first ever interview given to the Arizona Republic, as he was receiving an award from war veterans. Williams said that prior to the attacks there was a deep concern over racial profiling - or targeting a class of people for investigation because of ethnicity - that stopped some from acting on his recommendations.

"We are in a war with people who really want to hurt us. In my opinion, it is not over," Williams said. "Intelligence is not an exact science, I tell people it is like drinking from a fire hydrant."

*Not only do we fail to single out certain individuals who bear commonalities with the terrorists, we do not excuse individuals from the process of secondary screening who so obviously do not deserve the scrutiny. From culling hundreds of emails and news accounts sent to me in the last five years, two incidents stand out, both with a Philadelphia connection. First, on May 3, 2006, three Marine honor guards were subject to secondary screening as they escorted the remains of a fallen comrade through the Philadelphia International Airport. How disgraceful.

Second is the case of the Yocum family from Boothwyn. Their experience occurred on October 28, 2002, at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Claire Yocum delivered quadruplets 9 weeks premature. The babies then needed two months in the ICU. When they were finally able to fly home, they were selected for additional screening! Nineteen Arab look-alikes wreaked havoc on the U.S. on 9/11, and yet four newborns from Philadelphia are the ones getting the hairy eyeball. The babies, who were wrapped tight in blankets and had a net covering their car seats, were removed from their apparatus and searched. All of their bags, which were prepared and organized by nurses, had to be removed. In the process, the screeners woke the four sleeping babies.

I could go on and on.

The President has finally acknowledged that some in a particular community seek to kill us. Hopefully his comments will set the tone for what is to come because his Administration needs a mind set change. When my first book was published, it expressed a lengthier version of many of these same sentiments. For a book review published in a Boston newspaper, a DOT mouthpiece was asked for a statement on my views. He said I possess "a woefully warped sense of American values". Really? I say it's nice to philosophize about American peace, love and understanding, but right now we have a more important agenda. Like winning the war against radical Islam so that we are still around to engage in such dialogue when the dust settles.

Michael Smerconish is the author of Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11 and Muzzled: From T-Ball to Terrorism - True Stories that Should be Fiction.

##