Why more airport security doesn't stop terrorist attacks
Airport security measures change in response to every plot, and the Christmas Day terrorist attack is no different. But use of screening technologies hasn't kept up with new terrorist methods.
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Some critics are already calling for making it easier to move individuals from the broad Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list to the Terrorist Watchlist and the most restrictive "No Fly" list. After a complaint from his father, Mr. Abdulmutallab was added to the TIDE list, a broad database of 500,000 maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.
The White House says that there wasn’t enough specific and credible information to warrant moving Abdulmutallah to the Terrorist Watchlist. President Obama has ordered a review of watchlist protocols and screening procedures.
Intelligence experts familiar with the watchlists say they raise tough issues including the cost of more intensive human profiling and screening.
“Of the half million entries on the TIDE list, there no doubt are many, many others that do not identify a real terrorist but that provide more of a basis for follow-up than one father’s warning about a wayward son,” says Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst and director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
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The cost to civil liberties
The Terrorist Watchlist – a step beyond the TIDE list – is made up of approximately 400,000 people. The No Fly list contains some 3,400 people, of which 170 are Americans, according to the FBI. Abdulmutallab’s case could trigger moves to lower the threshold for inclusion on the terrorist watchlist, a change that could affect many innocents.
“This is not just a matter of retrospective discussion of a single case,” says Mr. Pillar. “It is a matter of clear rules that are not going to swing back and forth like a pendulum after each newsworthy incident. And it is a matter of recognizing and accepting the downsides in terms of false positives and innocent people getting harassed.”
Civil libertarians are already gearing up for a fight over this issue, as Congress and the Obama administration review security procedures.
“The consequences of being mistakenly added to a terror watch list can be more severe than simply missing a plane,” said the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement after the attack. “Law enforcement routinely run names against the watchlists for matters as mundane as traffic stops, and innocent individuals may be harassed even if they don’t attempt to fly.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) renewed calls Sunday for security personnel, passengers, and flight crews to avoid ethnic and religious profiling. They said two “Middle Eastern” men were recently removed from a US Airways flight in Phoenix and questioned after a passenger overheard them speaking in a foreign language. They were later released. “While everyone supports robust airline security measures, racial and religious profiling are in fact counterproductive and can lead to a climate of insecurity and fear,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
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