Monday, July 19, 2004

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Following up on Annie Jacobsen

Since I'm already blogging on homeland security today, I should point out that Annie Jacobsen has a follow-up on her experiences flying with 14 Syrians from Detroit to Los Angeles. Yours truly is mentioned.

Go check it out. I agree with Donald Sensing that here's not much that's new information about what actually happened, though there are a few disturbing quotes from airline industry professionals who feign no surprise at this kind of incident and believe it to be an example of terrorist test-runs.

However, Jacobsen makes it clear that clear that the blogosphere had the desired effect:

On Wednesday morning, the WWS page views were unusually high, something like 10 times the normal amount. Apparently our readers had been emailing the article to their friends, family and colleagues and everyone was reading it.

By Thursday morning, that number had again multiplied ten-fold. It felt like the shampoo commercial from my youth: they told two friends, then they told two friends, then they told two friends. We sat in the WWS offices reading through your emails, taking stock of what you had to say. As the afternoon went on, the number of people reading the article continued to increase and the telephone was ringing off the hook.

And then a powerful thing happened. The mainstream media started calling.

Good -- this is exactly the kind of story that merits further inquiry by "real" journalists -- you know, as opposed to people who "don't add reporting to the personal views they post online."

Also, it's worth reprinting Jacobsen's response on the question of political correctness and the merits of linking to Ann Coulter:

This brings us to the heart of the matter -- political correctness. Political correctness has become a major road block for airline safety. From what I've now learned from the many emails and phone calls that I have had with airline industry personnel, it is political correctness that will eventually cause us to stand there wondering, "How did we let 9/11 happen again?"

During a follow-up phone conversation, one flight attendant told me that it is her airline's policy not to refer to people as "Middle Eastern men." In addition, many emails have come in calling me a racist for referring to 14 men with Syrian passports as Middle Eastern men. For the record, the Middle East is a geographical region called just that: The Middle East. If you refer to people who come from countries in this region (including Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq) as "Middle Easterners," you are being geographically correct. We call people Americans and Canadians and English and French. I call my relatives who live in Norway Norwegians. So really, what is the hang up?

The fact that I quoted Ann Coulter seems to have many people up in arms. I want to be clear -- there is no political agenda here. I quoted Ann Coulter for the information she had, not for who she is. Read the quote again and pretend Joe or Jane Doe wrote it. She states the facts. The facts she states are that 10 days after 9/11, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta sternly reminded airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin or religion.

I cut and paste; you decide.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds reports that Annie Jacobsen and spouse appeared on the MSNBC's Scarborough Country this evening:

The Jacobsens seemed credible -- by which I mean they seemed honest. The experts afterward were skeptical that they actually witnessed anything untoward, but they all agreed that security is still weak.... at the end Joe Scarborough said they had been flooded with emails from passengers and crew who said that things have seemed odd lately on a number of flights.

LAST UPDATE: Joe Sharkey discusses Jacobsen's story in his "On the Road" column in the New York Times. A lot of it is recap, but there is this information:

[Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman Dave] Adams said he spoke by phone to Ms. Jacobsen for 90 minutes on Friday night. "This is an individual's perceptions," he said of her account of the flight. "Obviously, since 9/11, everybody's antennas have risen, and people are very concerned when they see something like this." He said that onboard air marshals did not intervene because the men weren't "interfering with the flight crew."

Even so, he said, he had no doubt that "most of the stuff did happen" as Ms. Jacobsen described it.

Aware of recent reports that the F.B.I. is worried that teams of terrorists may be practicing ways to sneak explosive device parts onto planes and assemble them in flight, Mr. Adams said, air marshals aboard Flight 327 "checked out the lavatories, and nothing looked like it was in disarray after these people went inside; everything was thoroughly inspected."

posted by Dan on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM


To briefly reprise my comments in the post below:

Who says the next terrorist attack has to come from a)young, b)male, c)Middle Eastern perpetrators?

We have in custody American, Mexican-American, British, French and Australian loonies. They are, in fact, young and male. What's to stop an adaptive enemy from shifting to other-than a), b) and c) types to defeat stereotyping?

Not a damn thing.

PC-ness may not be helping, but dropping American values to rely exclusively on profiling isn't going to hack it, either.

posted by: Hatcher on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

I'm still a little confused by what the big story here is. It seems that these people weren't terrorists, otherwise it would be huge story, on every media outlet. I very much doubt the idea that it was some kind of dry run (as evinced by Jacobsen's rather breathless comments about their voicing 'no') too. So its unfortunate that the people on the plane were scared, but what real lesson is there for plane security ?

posted by: erg on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

What would happen, if the 14 Syrians had been stopped before the flight and searched, but then proceeded with the same observed behavior? The passengers would be just as disturbed, the calls for MORE profiling just as loud. Terrorists don't need any more 'dry runs', after Sept 11, they know how to do it. I'd be a lot more concerned about Cargo planes and terrorists on the ramp/luggage side of the equation rather than swarthy 'middle-eastern' men sitting beside me.

posted by: cynical joe on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

I'd be more inclined to listen to the wingnuts' whines about the PC police if someone could point me to evidence that they called for U-Haul to stop renting trucks to right-wing white guys between the ages of 20 and 40. (Maybe they did - I really don't know).

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout! like Hatcher, I must reiterate a previous point, which is that Annie Jacobsen's main request seems to be that other people be as scared as she is.

Let's do a little inventory here shall we? I'm not sure what Annie Jacobsen wants, except for us to know that she's very unhappy. Stephen Flynn wants the country as a whole to take precautions and has a nice list. Daniel Drezner wants John Kerry to bash Bush, and also to focus his proposals more on prevention. Would endorsing Stephen Flynn's list be sufficient?

I am sure of the following things:

1) Dan wants John Kerry to do something, which suggests that he (Dan) is aware of the fact that GW Bush has done at best very very little, and at worst painted a big bulls-eye on our backs.

2) If the "somethings" that Dan wants done are anything like what Stephen Flynn wants done, they are inherently incompatible with any noticeable reduction in the size of the public sector.

3) To the extent that "prevention" is possible without an increase in the size of the public sector, it will be by re-prioritizing the federal budget. Somebody will have to get less so that security can get more. Which means that it's time for everybody who wants "security" to STFU about tax burdens unless they also have something constructive to say about where the money for security will come from.

4) By the same token, Stephen Flynn's proposals will almost certainly require a substantial increase in both the size of the law enforcement sector, and in peace officers' ability to incarcerate and interrogate without observing at least some of the constraints that we currently regard as due process. [I thought terrorism was a military issue rather than a law enforcement issue --ed. I certainly never said that - you must be thinking of someone else...]

So everybody who thinks that their civil liberties and their take-home pay are in danger -- or will be in danger when Hilary Clinton is President and gets to decide who is and isn't a terrorist -- better start thinking real hard and in great detail about exactly which civil liberties and exactly how many dollars they are ready to surrender. [Hey! You're always bitching about how our civil liberties are in grave danger! Now you want us to give them up voluntarily? --ed. I submit that that is the price of security. Take it or leave it, but I suggest leaving it.]

posted by: radish on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

So, what exactly is the Jacobsen/Coulter problem here:

The facts she states are that 10 days after 9/11, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta sternly reminded airlines that it was illegal to discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin or religion.

Is that not the law? Is it the law, but after 9/11 the law is to be disregarded? (Didn't SCOTUS just ream the Administration for trying to do that?)

The security checks are the responsibility of the security authorities, not pilots (much less panicked passengers) picking dark guys out of the plane and making them get off.

What Jacobsen is calling for, simply, is to go vigilante.

posted by: Andrew J. Lazarus on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Put this in the same category as shutting down Alligator alley and scaring the living daylights out of three med students because someone misheard something in Shoney's.

With this difference: now we have all heard of a site called "Women's Wall Street."

posted by: Brett on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Jacobsen writes that the heart of the matter is "political correctness." However, what she actually criticizes is the fact that airlines and the airline security folks are not allowed to discriminate based on race (and she calls for increased ability to profile based on such factors). In truth, non-discrimination policies are right on their own terms for obvious reasons -- they do not exist solely as a part of a "political correctness" framework. It's more than a little ridiculous to say that political correctness will cause a second 9/11. A lack of sound security measures will cause a second 9/11.

Again on a re-read, Jacobsen's utter lack of faith in airline security astounds me. Had there been a single armed air marshal on the 9/11 planes, the attacks may have been thwarted. Had the cockpit doors then been as secure as they are now, the attacks may have been thwarted. Had passengers known of the danger that hijacked planes could be deliberately used as instruments of terrorism and killing (a very radical idea pre-9/11), the attacks might have been thwarted. Had all checked luggage been screened the way it is now, bombings like Lockerbie might have been thwarted. What I'm getting at is the fact (well..."fact", who knows -- many parts of the story are hard to believe) that when Jacobsen was "surrounded by air marshals" she became more scared. The fact that the pilots, flight attendants, and apparently most of the passengers were all aware of the "situation" seemed similarly to only enhance her fear. Yet, as a flight attendants' representative wrote to Jacobsen, they have been trained in this and just might have been actually doing their job to keep the plane secure while Jacobsen was freaking out.

Before 9/11, no one could have dreamed of the kind of attack that happened. Likewise, what I think we should all be most scared of (as opposed to "Middle Eastern men" in adjacent seats) is the kind of attack that we can't see coming. One that might involve terrorists smart enough not to congregate and "act strange" beforehand. One that might involve non-"Middle Eastern" terrorists. Etc. Cynical Joe and Tim and everyone else above who posted similarly are right on. And the only way to prevent such an attack is to continue to push for increased security measures, not Jacobsen-style vigilanteism and profiling.

One more thing about Jacobsen. In this newer post she still won't let up: "another important question...Is there a link between my experience...and the arrest of Ali Mohamed Almosaleh by customs agents [in Minneapolis on July 7]?" She implies that there is and goes on to ask, "I wonder what might have happened if the 14 Syrians on my flight had been looked into more thoroughly?" Again it boils down to an immense distrust. After the FBI, the TSA, the newsmedia and whoever else investigated this to find out who those men really were and came up with nothing incriminating, Jacobsen refuses to believe it because the one thing she knows for sure is that she was suspicious. Very telling. I'm not asking that Jacobsen or any of us place complete faith in our security screeners or for that matter our government. I'm just saying that Jacobsen should get real about what she's actually looking for in airline security.

And her last paragraph? She presents to her reader the mental image of a photograph of a man jumping to his death from the World Trade Center to one final time decry her paper tigers of political correctness and the "dry run" that no one else has been able to confirm. Not politically incorrect. Just tasteless.

posted by: Brett on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Whoa, another Brett. Mine is the later post above. I'll start adding my last initial.

posted by: Brett R. on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

I'm mystified as to what her beef is at this point.

First of all, people have already identified the band, which she did not acknowledge. Shoddy journalism if you ask me.

Second, the system worked. There were air marshalls on board, they monitored the situation, and nothing happened.


posted by: praktike on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Remember, praktike, in the Great Struggle the Islamofascists are merely an emissary, the True Enemies are the l*b*r*als. Her beefs are that (1) liberals require airlines to follow the Law of the Land on discrimination, (2) that liberals have imposed on law enforcement a quota of Arabs they may question per flight [I didn't say that her fears were grounded in reality], and (3) liberals don't realize that the government is so incompetent, except Bush's cabinet and maybe the armed forces' enlisted personnel, it can't be trusted to secure our physical safety.

posted by: Andrew J. Lazarus on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Good point. Vigilantism against the liberals, I say! After all, it works in the Middle East, right? No gun control, and liberals get shot when they get out of line.

posted by: praktike on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Pratike writes:; "I'm mystified as to what her beef is at this point."

She has no beef, it is fear with a touch of racism.

As it has been, is and will be again.

posted by: j swift on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

What's the first thing you do when the new phonebook comes? You look to see if you're in there. When times are normal you look into the American mirror and see the reflection of yourself, when you are afraid you see everyone who doesn't resemble you. I don't think its racism, its more limbic brain overstimulation. Sigh, the times we live in.

posted by: cynical joe on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

As someone whose wife is a flight attendant and has a brother who's an air marshall, I read Anne Jacobsen's story with interest. My intention is not to criticize or endorse what she says happened, just to add some information that may be useful.

1) There can't have been a bunch of marshalls sitting all around the writer and her family. Air marshalls work in pairs, so there would have been 2 at most, probably none since there just aren't enough marshalls for the volume of domestic flights.

2) Both my wife, who's a flight attendant, and I have real trouble believing that the stewardess on the writer's flight would do the thing she's supposed to have done. FLIGHT ATTENDANTS ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DROP BOMBSHELL INFORMATION LIKE THIS ON CIVILIANS, especially a father with a small kid who might decide to try and take out the suspicious people himself. Contrary to what people think, American flight attendants are as calm and disciplined a bunch as you'll ever meet. They have to be, to survive the physical stress of flying all the time, not to mention the psychological. THEIR PRIORITY IS TO MAKE SURE NO ONE PANICS, and they know how to do that job well.

And, the part about asking civilians to write down a description is downright kooky. Like someone's who's trained to be observant can't remember a simple thing like height, build and clothes? Or why not just see which seat this guy's in, check the passenger manifest? It's just not believable. When a worried passenger calls my wife over, she listens and does her best to calm them down. She says as much as she and her colleagues fear another terror attack, they think it's more likely that passengers will go berserk with panic over nothing while the flight is in air. And they really don't want that to happen.

The flight attendants keep their eyes peeled for bad guys, and will pass on anything important to the flight crew, ground control and the marshalls. (Remember, the cabin crew is your best friend. There's nobody who's as dedicated to making sure the flight is safe, and they've had a lot of practice sizing up people.) Since 9/11, my wife's come home with some interesting stories about people freaking out on flights because they're convinced there are terrorists on board. A lot of them don't even involve Middle Easterners.

One time, it was a bunch of surgeons in business class headed to a medical conference (there were a lot of Indian Americans). A lot of Hispanics and Italian Americans too. And once, a group of kids from an Indian reservation that had never been on a plane and was kind of hyper.

What struck me was how much people exaggerated what they saw as a threat. She's heard a snoring, drooling cardiac surgeon described as 'obviously faking being asleep, must be planning to attack'. People waiting 5 minutes for the bathroom 'have been there for an hour'. Signaling, repeated nodding, she's heard that a lot. I asked her why she didn't seem to think it was that weird. "You've never had people yell at you and insist that their vegetarian meal OBVIOUSLY has meat in it, have you? What about, 'it's been 5 hours, why aren't we landing' 1 hour and 20 minutes into a flight?"

Point taken. Anyway, I hope everyone who read the story thinks about the 2 points I raised. I firmly believe that terrorists are plotting against us as we speak (though I don't see why they'd make it easier for us by going for planes again), but I can't ignore what to me is pretty clear indication that the writer maybe exaggerated a little, added some details for drama.

posted by: Park City Guy on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

What did the Oklahoma bomber look like? If I remember correctly, he was not of 'mid east' extraction.

I just got back from a trip, and the people the security were checking were old folks in wheel chairs, but all of our carry ons went thru the xrays, and those are fairly good.

posted by: Sheila on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Patrick Smith at adds a pilot's perspective on the incident (you have to watch the ususal Salon commercial if you are not a member). His conclusion: nothing of significance happened.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Why isn't the president stopping things like this from happening?

posted by: avid on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

It's unfortunate that in a country that prides in its rich diversity and deep cultural mix, we allow a nobody named Annie Jacobsen to turn speculation into a conspiracy theory. Annie Jacobsen's story is based on a connection of dots of incidents that ultimately meant nothing. Quite simply, we cannot and should not be alarmed every time a person of Middle Eastern descent stands up on a moving aircraft and heads to the lavatory. Articles like Jacobsen's only turn back the hands of time and incite hateful, cruel and completely unneeded racism.

We are in the process of forming People Against Annie Jacobsen (P.A.A.J).

posted by: Asher Ailey on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Didn't the current administration ask all Americans to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviors and activities? I believe that request has been made very clear.

Some may think this is a longshot, but five people standing up at the same time, just as a plane is landing, is suspicious. Of course not having a full or even partial understanding of the cultural differences of the men on Annie's flight, these men could have been standing up for prayer, right?

posted by: vl on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

I'm quite suprised at the reactions to Annie Jacobsen's article. If her acount is even partially correct, in that four Middle Eastern men stood up simultaneously and went to the bathroom when they were clearly not suposed to, who in thier right mind would not become seriously suspicious? I would never encourage the infringment of any American's constitutional rights, and I do not believe that profiling Middle Eastern men comes even close to such a violation. We routinely in this country ask about and take into consideration a person's race when it comes to education or jobs, with the understanding that a persons "race" predicates a fact about that person's past. It would be unbelievably foolish to not understand that at this time and in this environment, there are people from this geographic part of the world, who are most likely male, who intend to do great harm to our country. To not scrutinize these people and to quarel over politcal correctness is a death wish. Does anyone wonder how Israel's airline does not suffer from such attacks, because it does not occur to them to fight over the personal sensitivities of it's population, security is the paramount concern. Our security infrastructure does not need to spend more money, they need to focus thier efforts where they are most necessary. I have no problem if a group of Middle Eastern men are put under a microscope at the airport, if they have done nothing wrong, they can continue on and thier constitutional rights remain intact. Let us not forget as we fight over how much we hate or love Bush, (because these arguments are really an extension of that) that terrorists are taking every advantage, watching for every vulnerability, and are laughing to themselves as some Americans fight for thier right to openly plot mass murder on horrific scales.

posted by: Common Sense on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Bravo, Common Sense. How relieving that at least one poster here suggests an approach based on sense and not blind idiotic and self-defeating ideology!

posted by: TW Childs on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

..a little late on the subject:
I don't think anyone has mentioned another obvious explanation: "They" are playing games with "us". I'm familiar with the mentality of that part of the world: When it comes to someone perceived powerful and/or superior (read Americans), try to upset them or scare them, while not endangering yourself.
They know people will get perturbed by a group of Middle Eastern MEN on a plane. They know that everyone is watching them and so they do whatever they can to increase the level of fear and apprehension among the passengers. They also know all along that no one will dare do anything based on "profiling".
So they play their little game and they laugh their heads off (when they go to the bathroom). I went thru a similar experience in a recent flight and I could see the smugness in their eyes.

Yours in a "non politically correct" mode,

posted by: GeorgeB. on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Newsflash: The true enemy isn't "them." It's "us."

posted by: Heather on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

Well, why don't we just "racially profile" white males 20-35 years old becuase they all have potentials of being serial killers.

Or "racially profile" young males with Asian features (as in eastern asia like China or Japan, not middle east asia) because we want to prevent another Pearl Harbor.

Or "racially profile" every blond-haired, blue-eyed male because they could be part of the now-defuct (I hope) NAZI organization.

Or every other young black male because they could be carrying a gun on them and ready to rob you all.

PC or not PC, racially-motivated actions to digress terrorist actions are ridiculous. I looked at the same stupid picture she was talking about. What if that was a Middle Eastern man that was in that photo? What then? I hope the two cents this Filipino immigrant placed here will help you all to think rationally rather than out of stupidity.

posted by: dead guy on 07.19.04 at 05:41 PM [permalink]

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