New airport screening policy under fire
Muslim and civil rights advocates on Monday called on the Homeland Security Department to rescind a new policy under which airline passengers traveling from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism and other "countries of interest" to the United States are put through extra screening measures, arguing it is discriminatory and counterproductive.
The policy went into effect in response to the failed Christmas airline bombing plot in which a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to detonate explosives on a plane approaching Detroit.
Critics ripped the policy Monday at a forum on Capitol Hill, saying it amounts to racial or religious profiling of people traveling from predominantly Muslim countries to the United States, including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
"Profiling is now the policy of our country. Let's not mince words," said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition.
"This is one of those instances where something was done just to do something, to look like you are doing something," added James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, which organized the event.
The Homeland Security Department held a conference call Dec. 30 with advocates from Muslim-American groups. According to one participant on the call, the Transportation Security Administration gave assurances that profiling tactics would not be implemented.
Days later, Homeland Security issued the policy, which the participant said seemed to clearly contradict the assurance given on the conference call.
A coalition of 27 Arab and Muslim groups sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano a letter on Friday opposing the policy and asking for a meeting.
A Homeland Security spokesman would not confirm whether Napolitano will meet with the groups, saying only that the department "will respond directly to the authors of this letter."
"TSA does not profile," the spokesman added. "As is always the case, TSA security measures are based on threat, not ethnic or religious background."
But civil liberties advocates said during the forum that rooting out terrorists is like finding a needle in a haystack. And they contend that profiling all citizens from certain countries, and all people traveling through those countries, is adding more hay to the haystack, rather than searching for the needles.
Jumana Musa, policy director of the Rights Working Group, said a more efficient way to spot potential terrorists within the aviation system is to use behavioral analysis in which airport personnel are trained to spot certain behaviors that suggest a passenger might pose a threat.
She added that there are times when subjecting passengers to additional screening are justified, for example, if they buy an airline ticket the same day and pay in cash.
Last week, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced the screening policy and urged greater emphasis on training security personnel "in identifying the behavior of real terror suspects."
"Under these new guidelines, almost every American Muslim who travels to see family or friends or goes on pilgrimage to Mecca will automatically be singled out for special security checks -- that's profiling," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. "While singling out travelers based on religion and national origin may make some people feel safer, it only serves to alienate and stigmatize Muslims and does nothing to improve airline security."