A smoking incident on a United Airlines flight to Denver this past week briefly triggered fears that a terrorist might be on board. The false alarm put the spotlight yet again on air travel security . . . and the debate over the practice of profiling. Our Cover Story is reported by Martha Teichner:
The attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber," to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit would have been preposterous, if he hadn't come so close to killing himself and nearly three hundred other people on Christmas Day.
"There was a loud 'pop,' and a bit of smoke and some flames," recalled one passenger.
Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, thought, Not again . . . and knew what was coming.
"That's exactly what I said - 'There you go again, oh God help us, I hope it was not a Muslim,'" said Awad.
But the 23-year-old Nigerian who got through security and onto Flight 253 was indeed a Muslim, trained by al Qaeda in Yemen.
Immediately, pundits and politicians started saying what a lot of Americans might have been thinking:
"I know it's not politically correct to say, I believe in racial and ethnic profiling," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
"First of all, it is un-American," asked Awad. "Second, have we learned any lesson from targeting minorities in America? Targeting people because of who they are is wrong, counterproductive. And we look always back in shame on our history."
After the Christmas Day incident, the Obama administration announced that citizens of 14 countries - all but one, Cuba, predominantly Muslim - would be subjected automatically to extra screening before boarding flights to the United States.
That controversial policy was rescinded a few days ago, but the question remains: Is racial and ethnic profiling justified?
According to a recent CBS News poll, 51% of Americans say yes, compared to 38% who say no.
"The attitude is, how can something that makes so much sense - this is so obvious to everybody from the outside - not work?" asked David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He's been studying profiling for 15 years
"When race or ethnic appearance mixes into it in any way, it's a distraction and a potential disaster," Harris said.
"Wouldn't you be foolish not to take into consideration the fact that there might be people who fit?" asked Teichner.
"There might be people who fit, but the important thing is there might be people who don't fit who are just as dangerous, and more so because we're not looking for them," said Harris.
Take for example Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber . . . Colleen LaRose, the blond, Pennsylvania woman who calls herself "Jihad Jane" . . . John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban." Not one of them fits.
"You don't catch the people who you should stop, the Richard Reids," said Harris.
Remember Reid, the "Shoe Bomber"? Even though his behavior aroused suspicion, because he was British with a non-Muslim name, no one guessed he was a terrorist.
But listen to the story of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers.
"He had this scowl," said customer service agent Michael Tuohey. "His face should be on a bottle of poison, you know, with the bones and skull."
Early on the morning of 9/11, Mohammed Atta and another of the hijackers appeared at the U.S. Airways counter in Portland, Maine. Tuohey checked them in for the 6 a.m. flight to Boston.
What ran through his mind, Tuohey told Teichner, was, "if this guy doesn't look like a typical Arab terrorist, nobody does. I thought that. I actually thought that. And then I gave myself a mental slap for being, you know, stereotypical."
Just over three hours later, hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
"And initially I felt bad 'cause they were dead," he said. "Then that thought came back to me: If this guy don't look like your stereotypical Arab terrorist . . . And I think, 'He was an Arab terrorist.' And I just felt sick to my stomach."
So was Tuohey's failure to report Atta and stop him affirmation of the position held by people who say we have to be profiling? asked Teichner.
"What keyed Michael Tuohey's concern was the behavior and the actions of Mohammed Atta," said Carl Maccario, an analyst for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Maccario helped develop a program called SPOT - short for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques. In other words, behavioral - not racial or ethnic - profiling.
"We actually think the program is an antidote to racial profiling because what keys our guys' interest is how the person's acting, what behavior cues they're giving off," said Maccario. "They don't look at skin color or the ethnicity first; they look at what behaviors are coming off."
Maccario demurred about giving specific, but said, "I can tell you this: the cues that we look for are associated with the fear of discovery."
Body language, for example. Nervousness. Anger.
So-called behavior detection officers (or BDOs) are not the TSA agents herding you and your belongings through airport checkpoints. BDOs might be standing to one side, observing passengers in line.
But in fact, they could be anywhere.
And if they see something that doesn't look right? They move in and ask a few questions.
"How was your trip to Boston? Where did you go? Who did you see?"
"It's almost immaterial what your answers are to my questions; it's how you react to the engagement," said Maccario.
Since the SPOT program got underway in 2003, approximately 250,000 people have been identified for additional screening. Roughly ten percent of those have been handed over to law enforcement. Almost 250 have been arrested, although none for terrorism so far.
"It's based on everything from what you're wearing to how you walk," said Paul Ekman. He taught more than one-third of TSA's 3,000 behavior detection officers what to look for - microexpressions,.like anger.
If you've got something to hide, a split-second grimace can give you away.
Ekman is widely considered the leading expert in the study of microexpressions. The television show, "Lie to Me" is based on his research.
"I want to be clear that this should not, never be, and is not regarded as the only form of security," Ekman said. "It's in a sense the last ditch. We need every layer" of detection. So body scanning, from my vantage point, yes, absolutely. Yes, metal detectors. TSA behavioral detection officers, yes."
We have 3,000 now, but Ekman says we need another 25,000.
"There may be some cities, major airports, where less than a third of the traffic lines are being observed," he said.
"Why should the Israelis have more protection than we do?" Ekman said. "They have much better. There is no line where there aren't people watching you in Israel."
And you can't get on a plane without being interviewed, or having your bags searched. Israeli security is considered the gold standard. So why can't we just do what Israel does?
If nothing else, because of volume. Around 9 million passengers fly in or out of Israel's Ben Gurion Airport each year. More than 600 million board flights in the U.S.
But there are lessons we can learn from the Israelis, especially how to use intelligence to identify high-risk passengers.
"It starts long before the passenger shows up at the airport; it starts when the passenger books for a flight and provides his basic information," said Rafi Ron, the former head of security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, now an airline security consultant here in the U.S..
In addition to better-trained and more numerous behavior detection officers, the key to Israeli security is not only gathering intelligence but knowing how to act on it.
"The communication between the intelligence community and the people that execute security in the field is very, very close, very, very tight, and very, very fast," said Ron.
Which wasn't the case with the Christmas Day "Underwear Bomber."
"There's no question that the intelligence layer failed badly in this case," said Ron.
"It sounds like not much has changed since 9/11?" asked Teichner.
"Well, I'm afraid I have to support that statement," Ron replied.
"Hindsight is 20/20," said Michael Tuohey. "I mean, I went to therapy over that, I spent a lot of time in therapy: Why didn't I see this? What was this evil being in front of me, and even though I sort of recognized it, I didn't - why didn't I listen to my instincts?'"
Retired now, Tuohey is still tormented by his encounter with Mohammed Atta on 9/11. But what was it - Atta's behavior, or who he was, that got Tuohey's attention? Tuohey is an unapologetic supporter of profiling, unfair or not.
"Racial and ethnic profiling, yes, they're not good things, but they're a tool," he said. "You're inconvenienced, you got profiled. It's a safety check. Are you unhappy because you're safe? What is more important to you, your safety or your ethnicity? Your safety, your ethnicity or your life?"
The TSA insists profiling is a non-starter, and just a few days ago, in addition to rescinding the focus on 14 countries for special screening, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that from now on, intelligence - not nationality or religion - will determine who gets extra screening. The policy will apply to all passengers flying to the U.S.
And that's exactly as it should be, says profiling expert David Harris.
"You know, profiling, all this stuff, this is a side show, this is a distraction people want to talk about: Well, we should be looking for Muslims, things like that," Harris said. "Intelligence is it. We have just got to get the intelligence end of it right."
For more info:
Transportation Security Administration
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Dr. Paul Ekman
New Age Security Solutions
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