Hijacked by the 'Privocrats'
August 5, 2004
By Heather Mac Donald
Even as the Bush administration warns of an imminent terror attack, it is again allowing the "rights" brigades to dictate the parameters of national defense. The administration just cancelled a passenger screening system designed to keep terrorists off planes, acceding to the demands of "privacy" advocates. The implications of this for airline safety are bad enough. But the program's demise also signals a return to a pre-9/11 mentality, when pressure from the rights lobbies trumped security common sense.
The now-defunct program, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or Capps II, sought to make sure that air passengers are flying under their own identity and are not wanted as a terror suspect. It would have asked passengers to provide four pieces of information -- name, address, phone number and birth date -- when they make their reservation. That information would've been run against commercial records, to see if it matches up, then checked against government intelligence files to determine whether a passenger has possible terror connections. Depending on the outcome of those two checks, a passenger could have been screened more closely at the airport, or perhaps -- if government intelligence on him raised alarms -- not allowed to board.
Privacy advocates on both the right and the left attacked Capps II from the moment it was announced. They called it an eruption of a police state, and envisioned a gallimaufry of bizarre hidden agendas -- from a pretext for oppressing evangelical Christians and gun owners, to a blank check for discriminating against blacks.
Contrary to the rights lobby, Capps II was not:
• A privacy intrusion. Passengers already give their name, address and phone number to make a flight reservation, without the slightest fuss. Adding birth date hardly changes the privacy ledger: The government and the private sector have our birth dates on file now for social security and commercial credit, among numerous other functions. Far from jealously guarding their name and address, Americans dispense personal information about themselves with abandon, in order to enjoy a multitude of consumer conveniences. (Anyone with a computer can find out reams more about us than is even hinted at in the Capps II passenger records.)
• A surveillance system. Neither the government nor the airlines would have kept any of the information beyond the safe completion of a flight. The government would have had no access to the commercial records used to check a passenger's alleged identity; those would have remained with the commercial data providers contracted to provide identity verification.
• A data mining program. This misunderstood technology seeks to use computers to spot suspicious patterns or anomalies in large data bases, sometimes for predictive analysis. Capps II had nothing to do with data mining; it was simply a primitive two-step data query system.
The advocates' most effective strategy for killing off Capps II was to bludgeon airlines into not cooperating with its development. Northwest Airlines and Jet Blue were already facing billions of dollars in lawsuits for specious "privacy" violations, trumped up by the advocates in reprisal for those airlines' earlier cooperation with the war on terror. No other airline was willing to take on a similar risk and provide passenger data to stress-test Capps II. Without the capacity to be tested, Capps II was doomed.
The Department of Homeland Security has already shown itself a weakling in bureaucratic turf battles; its capitulation to the "privocrats" means it is all but toothless. It was just such a cave-in by the Clinton administration that eased the way for the 9/11 attacks. Under pressure from the Arab and rights lobbies, the Clintonites agreed in 1997 that passengers flagged as suspicious by the then-existing flight screening system would not be interviewed. Allowing security personnel to interview suspicious flyers, it was argued, would amount to racial and ethnic profiling. On 9/11, the predecessor to Capps II identified nine of the 19 hijackers as potentially dangerous, including all five terrorists aboard American Airlines Flight 77. But pursuant to the rights-dictated rules, the only consequence of that identification was that the hijackers' checked luggage was screened for hidden explosives. Had the killers themselves been interviewed, there is a significant chance that their plot would've been uncovered.
Since the demise of Capps II, the privocrats have tipped their hand: Their real agenda isn't privacy, but a crippling of all security measures. Leading advocate Edward Hasbrouck has decried both a voluntary "registered traveler" option, in which passengers agree to a background check in order to circumvent some security measures, and physical screening at the gate. Bottom line: Any security precautions prior to flight constitute a civil liberties violation. It is mystifying why the government should pay heed to people who so disregard the public good.
It is difficult to know where we go from here. There is no way to keep a terrorist from flying without first trying to determine who he is. Yet the most innocuous identity verification system prior to a flight is now seen as tantamount to illegal surveillance. With the rights advocates back in the saddle of national security, al Qaeda can blithely get on with its business.
Ms. Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.
©2004 Wall Street Journal
About Heather Mac Donald: articles, bio, and photo