Tradeoffs after Obama’s meeting with security advisors

The Obama administration takes concrete steps after the Christmas Day bombing attempt on Flight 253. But some of the decisions carry risk.

In less than two weeks since the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, the Obama administration has rolled out new security measures to prevent terrorists from traveling to the US. But the measures, while perhaps reassuring, involve risk. They are so broad that they could alienate friendly nations with large Muslim populations and damage the US economy. And they may not be all that effective.

To a fearful flying public, the steps show the president taking action. Some of them, such as the decision to hold off on returning Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen, are clearly practical. Others are far more problematic.

Since Jan. 4, for instance, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has required enhanced passenger screening – a body pat-down or full-body scan and an extra check of carry-ons – for all people flying from or through 14 designated countries to the US. 

The administration is also reportedly lowering the threshold for putting individuals on its terrorist watch list for further scrutiny. Alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on a catchall list, but had he been on the narrower watch list, the Nigerian would have been supposedly blocked from flying to the US. The Washington Post reports two criteria for allowing more people onto the actionable list: the relative youth of a suspect (Mr. Abdulmutallab is 23) and the country of origin, such as Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia

The security challenge for the US is to effectively target and screen terrorist suspects without overly burdening the flying public or trampling the rights of its citizens (Americans who travel through these 14 countries are affected). That is an extremely tough balancing act. It could well be that in having to respond to the near-miss over Detroit, the administration is overreaching.

Several problems – even dangers – can result from nationality-based profiling, for instance. It can sweep up innocents. The repeated delays and indignities aimed at Muslim countries can harden moderates against the US. Only one of the 14 designated countries for enhanced passenger screening does not have a large Muslim population – Cuba. Already criticism is coming from Muslim friends – friends that America needs if it is going to turn off the tap of would-be terrorists and convince the Muslim world that it is not in a fight with Islam. 

“Abdulmutallab’s behavior is not reflective of Nigeria and should therefore not be used as a yardstick to judge all Nigerians,” said Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili.  “He was not influenced [by radicals] in Nigeria, he was not recruited or trained in Nigeria, he was not supported whatsoever in Nigeria.” 

Nationality-based screening could also divert security eyes from terrorists such as Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber” who held a British passport) or Zacarias Moussaoui (a French national who was convicted of conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks and is serving a life sentence without parole in Colorado). The TSA insists it doesn’t do ethnic or religious profiling, but screens based on threat. The 14-country list seems to defy that.

Adverse economic consequences might also follow from the new measures. Broad visa and other restrictions introduced after 9/11 triggered a sharp drop in students, tourists, and business travelers to the US. Some numbers have yet to recover. And stepped-up deployment of full-body scanners in the US and abroad may discourage travel by people who view these machines as an invasion of their privacy – despite adjustments to the scanners’ design and use.

Selectivity in methods and in targeting of individuals must be the watchword in the antiterror fight. 

Should the US have more full-body scanners? Probably, but even the mass deployment of these expensive machines won’t detect explosives hidden in body orifices or between folds of flesh on obese people. 

Should country of origin be a factor in screening? Yes, but not the primary factor, when so many other things such as travel history reveal much more about a person – and when terrorists can launch from more than a select group of countries. 

Should the terrorist watch list be broadened? Perhaps, but only if that allows for the kind of scrutinizing that also quickly removes those from the list who shouldn’t be on it – such as people who unfortunately share names with legitimate suspects.

The Obama administration has taken concrete measures since the thwarted Christmas Day attack. But what of the potential trade-offs?

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