Thursday, July 22, 2004

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The trouble with racial profiling

It looks like the Annie Jacobsen story has been put to bed, but the debate on the relative merits of racial profiling in the comment threads here, here, here, and here has been pretty intense.

So, as a public service, here is Sara Sefeed's response to Annie Jacobsen in the Persian Mirror. Sefeed has her own disturbing experience with airport security when she's issued a boarding pass with the wrong name and no one notices.

Safeed's proposed reforms sound just as overwrought as Jacobsen's original account -- her complaint that "everything in the US is privatized and there is no unison among the different states, companies, and airlines, no one person seems to have jurisdiction or responsibility over anything" is as unfocused as the supposed target of her lament. That said, she does have a good closing paragraph:

I, an Iranian, born in Tehran have green eyes, light skin and light brown hair. You would never “profile” me under anything except maybe a wasp from the Upper West Side. I know plenty of Italians, Spaniards, Irish, Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Portuguese, French, and Russians who have black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. And even within the Arab community, should there not be a difference between a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Jordanian, a Kuwaiti, or an Iraqi? How do we “profile” them? Instead of trying to make the world a Mickey Mouse Park where things fit neatly into boxes and security agents can pick and choose “terrorists” with color-coded instructions from the government, shouldn’t we put some real brains behind the plethora of terrorist networks that continue to terrorize our daily activities all over the world? The question then is not would I mind “racial profiling” as a “Middle-Easterner” but rather would do you mind, if they ask you a few relevant questions at the airport the next time you board a plane.

UPDATE: This story by Eric Leonard casts further doubt on Jacobsen's account:

Undercover federal air marshals on board a June 29 Northwest airlines flight from Detroit to LAX identified themselves after a passenger, “overreacted,” to a group of middle-eastern men on board, federal officials and sources have told KFI NEWS.

The passenger, later identified as Annie Jacobsen, was in danger of panicking other passengers and creating a larger problem on the plane, according to a source close to the secretive federal protective service....

“The lady was overreacting,” said the source. “A flight attendant was told to tell the passenger to calm down; that there were air marshals on the plane.”

The middle eastern men were identified by federal agents as a group of touring musicians travelling to a concert date at a casino, said Air Marshals spokesman Dave Adams.

Jacobsen wrote she became alarmed when the men made frequent trips to the lavatory, repeatedly opened and closed the overhead luggage compartments, and appeared to be signaling each other.

“Initially it was brought to [the air marshals] attention by a passenger,” Adams said, adding the agents had been watching the men and chose to stay undercover.

Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said.

“In concert with the flight crew, the decision was made to keep [the men] under surveillance since no terrorist or criminal acts were being perpetrated aboard the aircraft; they didn’t interfere with the flight crew,” Adams said.

The air marshals did, however, check the bathrooms after the middle-eastern men had spent time inside, Adams said.

FBI agents met the plane when it landed in Los Angeles and the men were questioned, and Los Angeles field office spokeswoman Cathy Viray said it’s significant the alarm on the flight came from a passenger.

“We have to take all calls seriously, but the passenger was worried, not the flight crew or the federal air marshals,” she said. “The complaint did not stem from the flight crew.”

“You made me nervous,” Kevin said the air marshal told him.

“I was freaking out,” Kevin replied.

“We don’t freak out in situations like this,” the air marshal responded.

Federal agents later verified the musicians’ story.

“We followed up with the casino,” Adams said. A supervisor verified they were playing a concert. A second federal law enforcement source said the concert itself was monitored by an agent.

“We also went to the hotel, determined they had checked into the hotel,” Adams said. Each of the men were checked through a series of databases and watch-lists with negative results, he said.

The source said the air marshals on the flight were partially concerned Jacobsen’s actions could have been an effort by terrorists or attackers to create a disturbance on the plane to force the agents to identify themselves.

Air marshals’ only tactical advantage on a flight is their anonymity, the source said, and Jacobsen could have put the entire flight in danger.

LAST UPDATE: Michelle Malkin, blogging with a vengeance, reports and follows up on the visa status of the Syrians.

posted by Dan on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM


Safeed's last sentence hit the nail right on the head - to be effective, a security system must be intrusive and airline security as an effective system much more so than today. Passive scanning and low-frequency, low-sample rate, randomn intrusion just doesn't cut it. And individuals whose travel patterns, backgrounds, behavior under questioning, etc. trigger concern should get further scrutiny. Anyone travelling by air should expect the prelude.

posted by: Jon on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

I don't the problem here with profiling? Further, why does profiling have to be brainless? We have people working on Bayesian Spam Filters, why not have a sophisticated profiling system that (perhaps) uses Bayes theorem that also allows for learning?

posted by: Steve on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

They need to develop an advanced psychological profiling unit for counter-terrorism work, and that's the one area that previous FBI experience would actually be pretty helpful to intelligence efforts - their criminal and serial killer profiling experience. Yet this is the one area which they aren't bringing a lot of resources and commitment to bear. We need to start behaviorally and cognitively profiling terrorists. Unfortunately this sort of basic, duh, intelligence thinking is beyond Mueller and his goon squad. Tie that in with the white-crime financial crime experts and the counterfeiting/money laundering guys in the FBI and Treasury, and you might actually have the beginnings of a real domestic counter-terrorism analysis unit.

"Ah a brain, my kingdom for a brain!"

Hence the oldman parodies both and Shakespeare all at once. Ah well, I guess they can continue with this pointless racial profiling.

posted by: oldman on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Odd that the phrase, "polically correct" did not show up in the 911 report.

posted by: craigl on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

“Odd that the phrase, "polically correct" did not show up in the 911 report.”

You are absolutely correct---and it is truly outrageous. I’m convinced that this is number one reason for 9/11! Also, why in heaven’s name is Daniel Drezner talking about racial profiling? That simply doesn’t make any sense. Realistic profiling uses race as only a major factor. We must still consider the possibility of a lighter skinned convert to radical Islamism. The “racial profiling” nonsense is merely an invention of the liberal establishment. It has no basis in fact whatsoever. There never was any such thing as racial profiling per se.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Four of the 9/11 highjackers lived for months before the attack in San Diego. They were aided (in living, finding work etc -- *not* in the attack) by a San Diego State professor emeritus. He was an Arab doing what is natural for 90% of the people of this world, helping his own ethnic group out.

One of the highjackers got a job at an AM/PM. Again, he got it from an Arab, helping his own kind (note the resemblence of this word with kin, and king -- all derive from the same root, which is also ultimately related to the world 'gene').

San Diego was a logical place for these highjackers to live, and plot (on expired student visas), because they could count on the support from the large (mostly Chaldean) Arab community here. Places to live, work, even some cash were proviided -- again I stress *unknowingly* by the Arab community.

The point of all this is that the open borders ideologues -- of which Dr. Drezner is one -- have created a situation where foreign communities which can -- and do --serve as cover terrorists have multiplied far beyond our capacity to asimilate them -- if that were even a goal any more.

These ideologues bear a part of the responsiblity for 9/11 as the policies which they have supported led directly, as outlined above, to the sucess of the terrorists on that day.

posted by: stari_momak on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

The problem with developing a system for supporting the "is-this-person-a-concern" decision process is lack of data. There are a variety of algorithms and analysis frameworks that are very good at presenting probabilistic analysis. But they all require a deep data reference. And that brings us to the issue of privacy and constitutional rights and how this data collected, what the data set contains, how public or private it is, what level of citizen access or disclosure is allowed, inherent liability should the system mis-identify, and a slew of other questions a number of very smart lawyers could assemble a career around.

Personally, I have no issue with such a system tracking basic residency & citizenship data as well as travel routes, destinations and frequency about myself or others. This alone gives physical profiling. Psychological profiling would need much broader and larger data sets in quantity and data items in scope that most people (myself included) would consider crossing the privacy line. And the survey questions would have to be numerous to establish any form of semi-reliable association matches that could trigger a likely probability for concern. Even assuming you have a useful data set, pyscho-profiling isn't practical at point of departure/arrival - takes too much time to be done with any accuracy, though it would make a good tool in an interview scenario for a likely "candidate for concern".

This is a quicksand issue. Even without the volatile politics of privacy, the technological issues are not a slam-dunk by any means. In this domain, analysis techniques like Bayesian networks are not really concrete tools, they’re techniques for building a tool that are dependent as much on the data and results desired as the techniques themselves. One Massive Intellectual Challenge + Government Control & Financing + Political Issues = About A Snowball’s Chance Hell. No wonder Ridge dumped the Homeland’s attempts just last week. Guarenteed it wasn't for lack of wanting.

posted by: Jon on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Someone, anyone...?? Anyone out there in this html ether, maybe you Drezner, check out this link. I can't vouche for reliability but it sure makes Jacobsen look bad.

posted by: Carleton on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

"Jacobsen and her husband had a number of conversations with the flight attendants and gestured towards the men several times, the source said."

Gosh, no wonder the guy glared at her instead of smiling.

I guess she just isn't quite as smooth as she thinks she is.

I especially love the bit about how Jacobsen's freakout made the marshalls suspect *her* of being a terrorist's accomplice trying to flush out the marshalls.

posted by: Jon H on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

1. Jacobsen's an alarmist joke; a real shocker to the Dems who've been arguing precisely this point since the inception of the story.

2. The problem with racial profiling is that no one really totes up the costs correctly. If you want to ensure that yet another group of Americans (Arab Americans) comes to distrust the government instinctively, go right ahead. We've clearly already done it with much of the African American population, and that's worked out well.

The very small chance that you might catch a terrorist trying to kill everyone in a plane (say 200 people/plane * %age of planes with Arabs on them * whatever the chance of terrorism * whatever the chance of interception and successful intervention) doesn't seem enough to justify the long term costs of an Arab-American population that then becomes more susceptible to the blandishments of radical anti-American Islam.

Out of curiosity, can anyone think of a policy that was racially discriminatory on its face that we didn't later come to regret? (Honest question; I can't, but it might exist).

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

stari_momak wrote:

"The point of all this is that the open borders ideologues -- of which Dr. Drezner is one -- have created a situation where foreign communities which can -- and do --serve as cover terrorists have multiplied far beyond our capacity to asimilate them -- if that were even a goal any more.

These ideologues bear a part of the responsiblity for 9/11 as the policies which they have supported led directly, as outlined above, to the sucess of the terrorists on that day."

As they say - A conservative is a liberal who was robbed yesterday.

My guess is that Boy-Professor Drezner, like other OpenBorder true believers with their heads planted firmly in their asses, have a distantly pleasant, mostly master-serf relation with immigrants.

Immigrants are those darky smelly people who clean Boy-Professor's toilet, cut his grass and make his Salade de pâtes au poivrons. They are also slaving graduate students who do the work for which Boy-Professor gets paid.

But see what will happen when Mexicans start moving into Boy-Professor's neighborhood, when Mexican gangs will beat up his kids, when his wife will be insulted on her way to HomeDepot. It will take Boy-Professor all of 2 days to turn 180 degrees on the OpenBorder issue.

posted by: kufar on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Wow! That was clearly inappropriate.

posted by: Caleton on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Put to bed? not quite.

Scott, FBI member and immigration people sat down with these men. They questioned them. And, of course, afterwards they said, hey, everything checked out. But everything didn’t really check out. These people missed something as simple as visas that were expired. How did that happen?

posted by: h0mi on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

H0mi, you'd do better if you had a source more reliable than Joe "likely murderer" Scarborough.

First and foremost, an expired visa is not in itself evidence of being a terrorist.

Further, they don't mention when it expired. Did it expire a month earlier? Three months? Or the day before?

If it was the day before, or something like that, I'd guess the person or people opted to try and make it to the gig, rather than renew the visa, because renewing the visa might have taken too long.

If their plan was to just squeeze a few more shows in, make some extra money, and then go back home to Syria, I could certainly see them doing this even with the expired visa, gambling that they wouldn't get caught, or that they'd just be sent home to Syria if they were caught, and if they weren't caught, they'd make an extra chunk of cash to take home.

posted by: Jon H on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

You are now interned in Scarborough country.

posted by: Carleton on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

The hysterical reactionary Scarborough has probably confused the last permissible ENTRY date with the visa for the last day the musicians were permitted to be in the USA [scroll to "Border Agent"]. Better ratings that way, y'know.

posted by: Andrew J. Lazarus on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Further, they don't mention when it expired. Did it expire a month earlier? Three months? Or the day before?

From the url...

But my sources are telling me that the investigators never looked down to check the date. The expiration was three weeks prior to the flight ever taking off.

First and foremost, an expired visa is not in itself evidence of being a terrorist.

Never said it did. But it seemed premature to declare the story "put to bed" as this visa story came out.

posted by: h0mi on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

If you check Malkin's comments, h0mi (link above), Scarborough's sources apparently don't understand the difference between the date the visa is used (i.e., entry date) and the time the alien is permitted to stay. Perhaps if Scarborough had called the FBI or ICE (né INS), they could have thrown water on this craptastic scoop, which I'm sure will be echoing around Limbaughland come morning.

posted by: Andrew J. Lazarus on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

What PC bovi excrement.

WE NEED ethnic PROFILING - the Euros and Israelis don't hesitate, but US zombies fight "offensiveness" (whatever that is) after 3,000 innocents get burned, jumped, or crushed to death!

YOU IDJITS NEED A CITY TO FRY? (We're sure to get it.)

posted by: Orson on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

Well, I hope this effecitvely kills this story dead. It's funny how even when there was absolutely no evidence that these syrians were terrorists (FBI investigation turning up nonthing) -- and it was clear from Jacobsen's writting that she was a racisit -- that this story continued to perpetuate on the right. Actually, its not funny -- its scary. It amazes me that after Iraq, the right apparently still does not know how to assess evidence and apply basic rules of logic, probability, or any modern science to assess claims. All the hard facts don't support your crazy story -- well the tactic on the right seems to be to concot an even crazier story that can't be assessed given what we know. Dan, you should know that's not what rejecting an alternative hypothesis entails.

Now we know that the air marshall thought -- she was nuts and a bigger threat. Hmmm -- I wonder where we were hearing that before? So Dan, are you going to be emailing an appology to the Salon pilot? You attacked his peice following the protocol outlined above.

Of course, given the great news on Iraq (senate intel report, GAO report), WoT (9/11 report), and the economy (all those high-paying new jobs) -- I think its pretty obvious why this story caught wildfire on the right.

posted by: Jor on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

h0mi quotes: "But my sources are telling me that the investigators never looked down to check the date. The expiration was three weeks prior to the flight ever taking off."

As Malkin's commenter points out, this doesn't necessarily mean anything.

The visa is an entry visa only, and expires as soon as the person enters the country. That doesn't mean they're here illegally.

They have another document, the I-94, which does state the amount of time they can be here. But when *that* time expires, the person has about 45 days of leeway, if they've applied for an extension.

The guy on Scarborough made no distinction, and used imprecise language, so it's not at all clear what he was talking about. Or if he had a clue what he was talking about.

Every foreigner in the US has an 'expired visa'. Many have 'expired' I-94s, but are waiting for the extension paperwork to wend its way through the system, and that's allowed.

posted by: Jon H on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

The idea that we NEED racial/ethnic profiling is ridiculous. If airport security is not as strict as it should be, then ALL passengers across the board should be screened more carefully, not just those of a certain race or ethinicity. And for anyone who knows anything about the law, concerns about racial profiling are not a matter of so-called "political correctness," rather they are based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We can't pick and choose the parts of the Constitution we want to believe in. So all of those gun-totin' 2nd Amendment rallyers should feel just as strongly about the prohibition on race-based discrimination. If a group of Arab men are engaging in absolutely innocent behavior (and don't try to tell me that going to the bathroom repeatedly and getting items out of the overhead bin are not innocent), there is no lawful basis to treat them any differently than a group of white old ladies doing the same thing.

The kicker is that it has been confirmed (by the National Review, no less) that these guys were musicians (and the lead singer was sitting in first class), yet people still see Jacobsen's story as a call for racial profiling. Huh? Nothing happened. These men were guilty of nothing. So what would increased scrutiny have done?

Check out the National Review article yourselves.

posted by: raging red on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

We can't have adequate airline security while the airlines are responsible for part of it. Their job is to create satisfied customers, and intrusive security does not lead to customer satisfaction.

My wife suffers from an anxiety disorder. The last time we flew the checkin people got some sort of bad reading from her, they had us stand aside while they ran some sort of wand around ner and under her arms and between her legs, then they made her take off her shoes and stand there barefoot while they put her shoes through the x-ray machine. Then there was another inspection at the gate, they randomly picked people to search more closely and randomly picked our one-year-old baby. The inspector was dismayed to check her diaper but gamely did his duty.

There is a reason that was the last time we flew.

It simply can't work to give an control of security to private businesses that compete for customers.

The whole profiling thing comes from attempts to make it convenient for the mass of customers, and stil provide some chance to catch terrorists.

If we were serious about security to the point that customer satisfaction wasn't an issue, it would be easy to make sure planes aren't hijacked. Simply strip-search every passenger, issue them transparent jumpsuits for the duration of the trip, and chain them to their seats except to let them use the restrooms one at a time. Problem solved.

Except that isn't the problem. The problem is to satisfy lots of airline customers first, and also avoid an expensive terror incident that the airline might be partly liable for.

posted by: J Thomas on 07.22.04 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

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