Airline security grounded by paranoia
April 27, 2004
By Heather Mac Donald
If you'd be happy to fly seated next to the next Mohamed Atta, then don't worry about the crusade to cancel the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System. If you do want terrorists kept off planes, start worrying about the smear campaign now under way in the name of ``privacy.''
Our nation's intelligence agencies failed to ``connect the dots'' before Sept. 11. And a left-right alliance of privacy extremists is doing its best to keep it that way: These ``privocrats'' have shot down nearly every proposal to use intelligence more effectively, terming them an assault on ``privacy.''
The vigilantes now have in their sights CAPPS II, a -promising screening system that would verify a passenger's identity and check whether government intelligence files list him as a possible terror suspect.
The crusade against CAPPS II is a textbook case of privacy charlatanism. Last year, for example, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) told the European Parliament why it should refuse to cooperate with CAPPS II: The system would result in ``widespread spying,'' it said, by giving the Transportation Security Administration ``access to passenger's financial and transactional data.''
Not so: TSA would see none of such data about a passenger.
The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, claims that CAPPS II would likely discriminate against minorities by using credit scores to rank a flier's risk.
Another lie: Even the ACLU admits that TSA has denied any intention of using credit scores to assess risk. But, intones the ACLU, nothing the government has said so far actually ``bars'' it from doing so.
This position is ludicrous: At some point, a citizen must take his government at its word. Mistrust of government is a healthy instinct, but the assumption that everything a public official says is a lie leads to paralysis.
Every proposed national-security technology is a Rorschach test of the viewer 's special paranoia. Where the ACLU sees racial discrimination in CAPPS II, the libertarian right sees the hand of left-wing busybodies. Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform regularly signs on to anti-CAPPS II agitprop, wants to know ``who put together the terrorist watch list.''
``Does it contain gun ownership or evangelical Christians?'' he asked me rhetorically.
I asked TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield whether the agency would look at gun ownership to evaluate risk. ``It is totally beyond the scope of what CAPPS II is supposed to do,'' he responded.
EPIC claims that the program violates the Fourth Amendment's ban of ``unwarranted'' searches. Reality test: CAPPS screeners would merely ask for your name, address, birth date and phone number.
That's a search? Even if it were, the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches. Having to give this minimal information - all of it already required to buy a ticket, or on the ID required to board the plane - in exchange for air security is clearly reasonable.
With CAPPS II already under attack, an imaginary privacy scandal threatens to topple it entirely. Here's what really happened.
Following Sept. 11, private companies and research outfits showered the government with offers of help. Among them:
- Northwest Airlines offered several million passenger records to NASA's Ames Research Center to test whether technology could identify terrorist fliers. NASA promised to keep the data confidential.
- JetBlue Airways also gave a Pentagon contractor some passenger records for similar research to safeguard Defense Department facilities. To protect privacy, the contractor stripped passengers' names and other unique identifiers out of the records, and at the project's end, destroyed the data.
Privacy advocates still went berserk. The two airlines now face class-action lawsuits.
Now, TSA is trying to stress-test CAPPS II. But not surprisingly - after the scourging of Northwest and JetBlue - no airline has been willing to provide it with passenger data, even though that data would be anonymous and protected from misuse. Development of CAPPS II has come to a standstill. Private-sector cooperation with the War on Terror has evaporated.
Proposals for assessing risk in aviation don't grow out of a desire to ``rank citizens,'' but out of a need to protect people from a clear threat. If the government assigns different security risks to an Iowa music teacher and to a Pakistani-American funder of Islamic madrassas, it is not out of a passion for ``hierarchy'' but because of the reality of Islamic terrorism.
The congressional joint inquiry into Sept. 11 found that ``a reluctance to develop and implement new technical capabilities aggressively'' was a cause of the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures. The report added: ``While technology remains one of this nation's greatest advantages, it has not been fully and most effectively applied in support of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.''
We are making that mistake again.
Heather MacDonald is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose Spring issue this is adapted. This column also ran in the New York Post.
©2004 Los Angeles Times
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