Ethnic Profiling As a Security Fix?

(AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Another signpost of our polarized times: When it comes to questioning the wisdom - let alone the efficacy - of screening travelers to the United States based on their ethnic or racial profiles, attempts at a serious debate often get put down as being hopelessly "PC." It's a favorite technique on talk radio, a media partial to mind-numbing shout-a-thons, the M.O. being, the more hysterical, the better. Unfortunately, more than a few not-too-bright politicians have adopted the practice when sharing their sound-byte reflections about how we ought to seek a more perfect - and secure - union.

But in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack by 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, we can do ourselves a big favor by taking a sober second look at the Obama administration's screening order targeting persons from or traveling through 14 nations. The roster of states on the list includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen. Cuba but why not Egypt, the homeland of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Muhammad Amir al-Atta. And what's stopping al-Qaeda from sending an operative from another country that's not on the list?

It's hard to take this seriously. If the idea was to pull together a roster of nations with home-grown terror groups, here's a more comprehensive list assembled by the Center for Defense Information. But that wouldn't fly. Can you imagine the State Department having to explain to government officials in Athens (as well as to Greek-American lobbyists) why Greece qualified for the bad guy list. Well, there it is in black and white: Greece is home to the Revolutionary Nuclei (RN) a.k.a. Revolutionary Cells, an organization designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2002 for its role in bombings and assassinations of senior U.S. officials as well as Greek public figures. It's a lot easier to add a state like Syria to the list without triggering that sort of domestic uproar. For the record, I'm no admirer of Syrian authoritarianism, but as Juan Cole correctly points out, Baathists, who are secular Arab nationalists, are not plotting the hijacking of U.S. airliners. Regimes like the one in Damascus know that terror has a return address that can be traced back to them. That's why they don't target the U.S.

Administration officials claim the policy will make us more secure but it's hard to see how. Intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have far better results scouring the massive government database of the nearly half million names of people who have had relationships or (email and phone contacts) with known terrorists.

Fact is that the White House rushed this directive through for obvious political reasons. After watching the Republicans have a field day with Janet Napolitano's bizarre initial statement that the system worked - of course, it didn't - the president's advisors concluded he had to do something. And this was the best they could come up with? Maybe we're so dumb that we deserve to be treated like dim children. It worked for Bush, maybe it will work for Obama.

The president brought a lot of smart people along when he came to Washington. How disappointing that his A Team failed to give him better advice. In this case, the administration wasn't being politically correct. It was just politically maladroit.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.