Dec. 14, 1999, Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the United States from
Canada at Port Angeles, Wash. He had a suitcase bomb in the trunk of
his car. A US customs agent, Diana Dean, questioned him at the border.
He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In
Dean's own words, he was acting “hinky.” Ressam's car was eventually
searched, and he was arrested.
It wasn't any one thing that tipped Dean off; it was everything
encompassed in the slang term “hinky.” But it worked. The reason there
wasn't a bombing at Los Angeles International Airport around Christmas
1999 was because a trained, knowledgeable security person was paying
This is “behavioral assessment” profiling. It's what customs agents
do at borders all the time. It's what the Israeli police do to protect
their airport and airplanes. And it's a new pilot program in the United
States at Boston's Logan Airport. Behavioral profiling is dangerous
because it's easy to abuse, but it's also the best thing we can do to
improve the security of our air passenger system.
Behavioral profiling is not the same as computerized passenger
profiling. The latter has been in place for years. It's a secret
system, and it's a mess. Sometimes airlines decided who would undergo
secondary screening, and they would choose people based on ticket
purchase, frequent-flyer status, and similarity to names on government
watch lists. CAPPS-2 was to follow, evaluating people based on
government and commercial databases and assigning a “risk” score. This
system was scrapped after public outcry, but another profiling system
called Secure Flight will debut next year. Again, details are secret.
The problem with computerized passenger profiling is that it simply
doesn't work. Terrorists don't fit a profile and cannot be plucked out
of crowds by computers. Terrorists are European, Asian, African,
Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Richard
Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a Jamaican father. Jose
Padilla, arrested in Chicago in 2002 as a “dirty bomb” suspect, was a
Hispanic-American. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was the
Unabomber, who once taught mathematics at the University of California,
Berkeley. The Chechens who blew up two Russian planes last August were
female. Recent reports indicate that Al Qaeda is recruiting Europeans
for further attacks on the United States.
Terrorists can buy plane tickets — either one way or round trip —
with cash or credit cards. Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 plot,
had a frequent-flyer gold card. They are a surprisingly diverse group
of people, and any computer profiling system will just make it easier
for those who don't meet the profile.
Behavioral assessment profiling is different. It cuts through all of
those superficial profiling characteristics and centers on the person.
State police are trained as screeners in order to look for suspicious
conduct such as furtiveness or undue anxiety. Already at Logan Airport,
the program has caught 20 people who were either in the country
illegally or had outstanding warrants of one kind or another.
Earlier this month the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit
challenging the constitutionality of behavioral assessment profiling.
The lawsuit is unlikely to succeed; the principle of “implied consent”
that has been used to uphold the legality of passenger and baggage
screening will almost certainly be applied in this case as well.
But the ACLU has it wrong. Behavioral assessment profiling isn't the
problem. Abuse of behavioral profiling is the problem, and the ACLU has
correctly identified where it can go wrong. If policemen fall back on
naive profiling by race, ethnicity, age, gender — characteristics not
relevant to security — they're little better than a computer. Instead
of “driving while black,” the police will face accusations of harassing
people for the infraction of “flying while Arab.” Their actions will
increase racial tensions and make them less likely to notice the real
threats. And we'll all be less safe as a result.
Behavioral assessment profiling isn't a “silver bullet.” It needs to
be part of a layered security system, one that includes passenger
baggage screening, airport employee screening, and random security
checks. It's best implemented not by police but by specially trained
federal officers. These officers could be deployed at airports, sports
stadiums, political conventions — anywhere terrorism is a risk because
the target is attractive. Done properly, this is the best thing to
happen to air passenger security since reinforcing the cockpit door.