Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Are We Ready to Profile?

By now you've read or seen a variety of opinions on what we should do after the failed Christmas terrorist attack. I won't repeat all the details here. At this stage, it appears the intelligence community knew a little about the terrorist (enough to give him the codename "The Nigerian"), but not a lot. What we do know is there were holes in our system that allowed this man to have everything he needed to blow up a plane over a major U.S. city. His own mistakes, and the quick actions of private citizens are the only thing that saved us.

I have seen a number of reporters and pundits asking if we should update airport screening machines in response to this attack. Specifically, should U.S. airports install the new machines that allow a viewer to see everything under a passengers clothes. However, very few pundits seem to be discussing profiling. Why are we willing to punish innocent passengers by essentially strip searching them, but we won't suffer the potential embarrassment and hurt feelings of a few passengers and a few terrorists by profiling?

The Israeli's seem to profile with excellent success. I think we should really consider this. With the Christmas bomber, we had a Nigerian, paying for a ticket in cash, traveling without luggage. Surely that would have raised a few flags in the profiling process.

There will be the inevitable remark that profiling is racists. I am not arguing to profile strictly on racial lines. I am saying let's talk to Israel, and use another tool that could potentially catch terrorist as oppose to strip searching a vast group of passengers who have no intention of blowing up an airplane.


the anonymous guy said...

Not just racist, but foolish and dangerous, says Michael Chertoff:

"I’m going to argue that this case illustrates the danger and the foolishness of profiling because people’s conception of what a potential terrorist looks like often doesn’t match reality. In this case we had a Nigerian, for example, not a person from the Middle East or from South Asia. If you look at the airline plot of 2006, two of the plotters were a married couple that were going to get on a plane with a young baby. The terrorists understand that the more they vary the kind of operative they use, the more likely they’re going to be able to exploit prejudices if we allow those prejudices to guide the way we conduct our investigation."

Anonymous said...

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Andy D said...

Profiling does not have to revolve around race. If we just profiled for 19 to 40 year old Arabs, we would have missed the Christmas bomber. However, if we correctly profile, exam information about a person (such as how they paid for their ticket), and conduct interviews while people are waiting in line to go through security, we can very effectively profile.

The more I read on this, the more I think we have to get away from our mentality of keeping the bombs or guns off airplanes, and adopt more of an Israeli attitude of keeping terrorist off planes.

Andy D said...

Thanks for the compliment Anonymous. I hope you come back and weigh in on the discussions.

Patrick said...


Long time no comment. Got some catching up to do with the blog and I hope your Holidays were great. Same goes for Pack04.

I have to say, that I'm a litle disappointed in your view on this topic. For today's "No-Fly" and "Watch" lists, there are several characteristics the government uses to profile individuals and place them on these lists. We know the Nigerian young man was on the Watch List. It's just that the government didn't know how to follow through on this one.

The point is, that we already use profiling to place people on watch lists. We are also supposed to have security forces at the airport that perform the tasks as you stated in your blog. With the Christmas bomber, we had a Nigerian, paying for a ticket in cash, traveling without luggage. Surely that would have raised a few flags in the profiling process. My question to you is, how much more profiling and data gathering can we do to prevent another attack?

Chertoff was right in the fact that terrorists will continue to change their tactics to evade profiling techniques. So where do we draw the line? Eventually, we will continue to fall down the slippery slope and start profiling by country of origin, race, religious affiliation, etc. Of course, that could be one part of Al Qaeda's plan: to create a USA where it's people are afraid of anyone who looks different and suspects everyone.

Andy D said...

I started this post for a real open and honest debate. I don't know that I have the answers on this one, but I do believe something needs to change.

I may touch off some bad feelings here, but why shouldn't we consider religion and country of origin when profiling? If we have a lot of people trying to blow up planes that are from one nation, or from one religion, shouldn't that factor into who gets looked at a little closer? I am not saying that any Muslim getting on a U.S. flight needs to go through extra security. I am saying that if we have someone who appears to throw up a few warning signs, and is Muslim, or is Yemen, then maybe security should look at him a little closer. People are afraid of pointing out that there are common threads in the terrorists that are trying to blow up planes. What I don't understand is why we ignore this, but we are ok with every passenger getting on an airplane being strip searched.

Again, I don't claim to have all the answers on this topic. I do believe the TSA, and the Department of Homeland Security are missing a few answers as well. More of the same thing we are doing now isn't going to cut it.

Patrick said...

I don't think I was clear enough in my post before. I was getting at the fact that we are already profiling. When someone is escorted out of line to engage in a closed-door screening, they have been profiled. It's necessary for TSA to keep us safe, and I agree we should keep the practice. Perhaps we should fine tune it as you said.

Perhaps I misspoke with this. Eventually, we will continue to fall down the slippery slope and start profiling by country of origin, race, religious affiliation, etc. I just don't want security forces on the ground level trained in profiling techniques to start using prejudices to gauge who they screen and don't screen. It can be detrimental to our safety. And I don't believe Chertoff was completely right in his statement. I do believe it was more of a PR statement to say that DHS does not profile. I mean, come on, how would they connect the dots if they didn't profile? (Well, they didn't do so hot recently...)

To be honest, if I was picked out of line a few times, I would be ticked off. But I'd be more upset that that process of my travel was interrupted rather than thinking it was racial profiling.

I do agree with you though, that something has to change with TSA and Dept. of Homeland Security. Either we're having a case of short-term memory, or we've forgotten how close we are to attack every day.

Seattle Dave said...

I dunno what the answer is.

However, I do now a few statistics (which are always fun):


99mil commercial flights
6 total terrorist attacks,
4 successful attacks

You have a 10mil in 1 chance of being in a terrorist situation on a commercial airline flight.

You have a 1 in 500k chance of being struck by lightening.

So, the question really should be:

"With the ridiculously high amount of air travel in and out of our country every decade, can we expect to catch/thwart every attempt (all 6 of them out of 99million) by a terrorist group/organization? And further, is it worth out time and thought and money to figure out a way to racially/religiously/whateverly profile passengers?"

My answer is.. no

We'll never have a foolproof system. We are too big with too many routes in and out, for that to happen.

So, what I would like to see is how we address security in an int'l airport, and what we are doing to stop a passenger on the no-fly list from boarding, going foward.

That is a much more relevant and realistic discussion than talking about Israel and what they do with their 2 international airports and their 9 domestic airports.

Happy New Year!

pack04 said...

Your statistics are silly for terrorist flights and tell us nothing. The thing to be concerned about is if 6 total terrorist attacks are the only 6 that were attempted. That means we have a 100% failure rate at keeping terrorist who plan to attack using an airplane from happening.

Seattle Dave said...


What is silly about 99million flights over the past 10 years, with 6 total terrorist attacks, and 4 attacks that actually succeeded?

I'm not following you Packe.

pack04 said...

Let me try again.
Yes there are a lot of airline flights a year. Relative to amount of airline flights in the last ten years there has been a very low chance of a terrorist attack happening on any given flight.
That stat will work if the terrorist have wanted to be on every single airline flight.

However, if there have only been 6 people, ever, that have wanted to use an airplane as a way to attack our country than that stat is useless and we have done a bad job at keep flights safe.

As far as I am concerned all 6 attacks succeeded because they got on a plane and executed their plan. Yes he failed at murder but succeeded at producing terror with the people on the plane and all future plane travelers.

Also, I really don't want to have to explain the packe thing again.

Seattle Dave said...

So, you're saying that looking at the amount of terrorist attacks since 9/11 (essentially) vs. the amount of commercial flights in the US has no bearing on whether or not the security measures we have taken since 9/11 have worked? Essentially, rendering anything we have done since 9/11 to try to keep the skies safer, useless?

You can't measure success/failure, in this type of situation, by simply assuming only 6 attacks were planned. First, you don't know that, and will probably never know that, and second, security measures, in any situation, are taken/adopted/enforced to dissuade people from attempting to breach security. Not to actually capture someone in the act. (to be clear, I'm saying increased security measures, such as increased screening, shoes off, no liquids, etc. are designed to act as deterrents to an attacker, as opposed to actually catching the attacker)

So, yes, those statistics are relevant, because it's the only way to adequately measure any effect increased security situations have.

Andy D said...

I think you really have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. When you think of the number of flights vs. the number of attacks, the percentage is small. However, we don't know (and may never know) how many attempted attacks there are, as well as how many "operational" flights. We know the 9/11 attackers successfully flew a few flights before 9/11 practicing for the attack.

At the end of the day, I think we have to change our approach to terrorism, and that has been the driving force behind this post. That and my belief that it is shear insanity to talk of installing these new full body nude scanners for every passenger without seriously talking about profiling potential terrorists.

pack04 said...

I never said the security measures were not working. Your whole statement on the likelyhood of a terrorist attack being less likely to happen than geting struck by lightening looked like you were against additional screening because terrorist attacks don't happen that much. I was just pointing out a different way to look at the same numbers. Call it a glass half full half empty kind of thing.

How many people have been detered from the screening measures? You cannot honestly say everybody on all of those 100 million flights except 6.