Spotting Terrorists Better

Of the many recommendations in the 9/11 Commission's report, the need for better technology to screen passengers and cargo entering the US ranks as among the most significant.

"Targeting travel is at least as powerful a weapon against terrorists as targeting their money," the report states. Elsewhere it notes: "Fraud in identification documents is no longer just a problem of theft."

The commission recommends biometric screening, and urges collaboration with other governments as a way to effectively ID terrorists. That's worth serious consideration by Congress and the Bush administration. Al Qaeda operatives are well trained to forge travel documents. But biometric identifiers of unique physical features, such as irises, are more difficult to thwart, especially when two or more such identifiers are used. The US already has in place the first piece of such a system in the Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which uses digital photos and fingerprints. Now, it's developing biometric passports.

With such a system, it won't be easy to offset fears of an Orwellian future. But the commission did call for a screening, not profiling. And it has no less than three recommendations related to the need to protect privacy and ensure citizens' civil liberties.

High-tech gadgetry has its place in a post-9/11 world. But on the premise that Al Qaeda may one day thwart biometric technology too, the commission offers a thoughtful reminder about the ongoing need for individual screeners to trust their judgment, use intuition, and for screening systems to leave room for both.

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