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11 Jan, 2010

After “Crotch-bomber” Attack, Racial and Ethnic Profiling Under Fire

New security policies implemented by the US government in the aftermath of the botched attack attempt by the “crotch-bomber” on Christmas Day 2009 are coming under fire from travellers, airlines and civil liberty rights groups worldwide.

On January 8, a coalition of more than 25 Civil and Human Rights organizations in the United States issued a statement opposing the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) new screening standards issued on January 4, 2010.

These mandate enhanced security measures for individuals coming from 14 countries, those identified as state sponsors of terrorism, and other “countries of interest.” With the exception of Cuba, the directive targets individuals, including US citizens, travelling from Muslim-majority or Middle Eastern countries with no regard as to whether the passenger poses an individualized threat.

The coalition has sent the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, a letter addressing the concerns of the communities about the new standards which they said “allow for ethnic and national origin profiling.”

The letter said, “Implementation of this policy will result in racial and ethnic profiling, a practice that the DHS has repeatedly disavowed. For instance, on the TSA website, it explicitly states, ‘TSA does not conduct ethnic or religious profiling, and employs multiple checks and balances to ensure profiling does not happen’.”

Among the signatories were the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Asian American Justice Center, Asian Law Caucus, Japanese American Citizen’s League, Association of Muslim American Lawyers, Sikh Coalition, South Asian Americans Leading Together and the South Asian Network.

The letter said, “Importantly, profiling on the basis of ethnicity and national origin is also an unreliable means of identifying criminal behavior. These new procedures parallel the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), put into effect shortly after 9/11. Despite tracking at least 83,000 individuals from Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries, the NSEERS program did not result in a single terrorism conviction.

“ Neither NSEERS nor the new TSA standards, make us safer because they divert attention and resources away from legitimate leads and identifying suspicious behavior.

“ All of us are concerned about the security of our nation. However, security policies based on ethnic and religious profiling are both ineffective and contrary to Constitutional principles. Terrorism is neither ethnically nor geographically confined.”

The letter added, “We respectfully request that you withdraw the new security directive that targets all individuals traveling from specific countries, and that we be provided a copy. We also respectfully request a meeting with you to directly express our concerns.”

According to ADC Legal Director Nawar Shora, “An estimated 700 million civilians are affected by these new directives, this includes US citizens and members of our Business Community. Such a policy not only has a negative impact on civil liberties and business, but is not sound in its attempt at security and is counter to our American way of life.”

He added, “A disparate segment of the Arab-American community will be scrutinized because of these new guidelines. The blanket labeling of hundreds of millions of civilians based solely on their country of citizenship or travel is not only unfairly discriminatory based on national origin, but also improperly labels millions of innocent people as somehow suspect or possible terrorists.”

The Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines (AAPA) issued a statement saying that “each new security incident prompts a desire to introduce yet more security measures. There is always political pressure to react, but this often smacks of the need to be seen to be doing something rather than thinking through the appropriate action to take.

“ The public understand that no society can credibly claim to provide perfect security. It takes real political maturity to remain calm, and not fall into the trap of knee jerk reactions, such as the imposition of new security measures of unproven effectiveness. Additional security measures are only justified when it can be demonstrated that the benefits outweigh the additional burdens they impose on society.

“ Treating each of the six million passengers who fly every day as potential terrorists and subjecting them to virtual strip searches and pat-downs already borders on the absurd, particularly when compared to our approach to public security in other aspects of our daily lives. Doing so comes at a cost, already measured in tens of billions of dollars annually.

“ Whilst new screening technologies are constantly under evaluation, including full body scanners and automatic explosive detection systems, there is insufficient evidence regarding their effectiveness to justify their immediate deployment, not to mention unresolved health and privacy issues,” said AAPA Director General Andrew Herdman.

“ The current debate on the merits or otherwise of passenger profiling raises a number of other important issues of fairness and preservation of human dignity, given the fact that 99.99 percent of passengers, even from supposedly higher risk categories, are entirely innocent.”

“ Rather than focus on ever more intrusive passenger screening, the key lesson from this, and previous terrorist incidents, is the critical importance of effective intelligence gathering and analysis. Clearly, both inter-agency and inter-governmental cooperation needs to be reinforced.”

Mr Herdman cautioned: “The sudden introduction by national governments of uncoordinated new security requirements, without prior consultation, makes practical implementation difficult. The fact that such requirements are unpublished, and even in some cases unwritten, inevitably leads to inconsistency of application.

“ Far from reassuring passengers, the likely result is further confusion and unnecessary inconvenience. We urge governments to cooperate closely with industry and strive for global harmonisation of aviation security measures, working in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation Organisation.”

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