Smarter profiling at the border is needed, experts say

As the INS focuses on keeping terrorists from entering the country, analysts are warning that screening must get smarter.

As part of its post-9/11 efforts to keep would-be terrorists out of the country, the State Department asks that question of visa applicants--provided that they are male and between 16 and 45 years old.
Do you have any specialized skills or training, including firearms, explosives, nuclear, biological , or chemical experience?

Last fall, the State Department also began insisting that male visa applicants in that age range submit to more thorough background checks if they are from any of 26 predominantly Muslim countries including Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has interviewed 5,000 male U.S. residents of Middle Eastern origin and now wants to interview 3,000 more.

In short, the controversy over whether the federal government should engage in profiling to determine which foreigners should be allowed to legally enter this country generally misses a key point: The United States already uses profiling as a border-control tool. And that is nothing new. Based on the assumption that it is not in America's national interest to let in countless indigent immigrants, the State Department's visa officers have systematically engaged in economic profiling for years--putting the onus on foreigners to establish that they would not become a burden on the United States.

Yet, because the word "profiling" is associated with allegations of "driving-while-black" discrimination by traffic cops, it sets off alarms in Washington. But the real problem, many experts agree, is not that the federal government is profiling--giving some sorts of people more scrutiny than others when they attempt to enter this country--but that it may not be profiling very intelligently. After all, how likely is it that a Saudi man who spent the summer of 2001 in an Al Qaeda camp learning the basics of bio-terrorism is going to volunteer that information on a visa application?

Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, says of the State Department's new bio-terrorism question, "There are two possible answers: One is `No,' and the other is `No.' With one answer, you're telling the truth. And with the other, you're lying." Even the State Department recognizes the limited utility of the answers that its extra-scrutiny visa form is eliciting: "That's the rub. They can't really be verified," one State Department official said.

And, of course, two of the recent Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel were young women. If either had applied for a U.S. visa, she would not have been subjected to the special scrutiny now given to young Arab men.

According to many analysts, the profiling that would be most beneficial to the nation's war on terrorism would involve techniques similar to those that police routinely use in trying to solve a serial murder case. Data about each would-be foreign visitor's race, gender, national origin, and other traits would be combined with any known behavioral information, such as previous enrollment at a crop-dusting school or attendance at an anti-American rally. These factors could then be weighted in terms of how much each raises or lowers the likelihood that the foreigner is a terrorist. No single attribute or activity would designate someone as a terrorist threat, but each warning flag would increase the odds of being denied legal admittance to this country.

Government officials, while hesitant to openly discuss profiling in which race or religion might play some role, are clearly interested in improving screening systems. "We're constantly looking at new technologies and new techniques, whether it be biometrics or profiling or more-imaginative uses of databases," said one State Department official. There's international interest, too. "I think that [detail profiling] would be a worthwhile cause to engage in," said Ronald K. Noble, secretary-general of Interpol. "That's the preventative role that we've been focused on since September 11."

Federal agencies are already looking at technology that, theoretically, would both merge information on known terrorists and spot suspicious patterns that would lead to the discovery of others, said Tim Hoechst, senior vice president for technology at Oracle, a software company that has been tapping into the new federal homeland security market. According to Hoechst, profiling that could uncover potential terrorists before they strike is the hottest topic of conversation. "When you talk about that, the interest is extraordinarily high," he said.

"That is really the Holy Grail."

The Traditional Face of Profiling

Any young, single Trinidadian woman with a sister living in, say, Brooklyn, N.Y., had "nanny" written all over her--meaning that there seemed to be a high risk she would overstay a tourist visa. Any visa applicant between the ages of 14 and 30 got a close look. And anyone who was unemployed had plenty of explaining to do. These were some of the criteria that Jessica Vaughan remembers using as a U.S. consular officer in Trinidad in deciding whether to issue a nonimmigrant visa. Those were the good old days when consular officials' primary concern was spotting and turning down would-be immigrants who were falsely claiming to want to come to the United States for only a short time. "There's a certain amount of profiling you have to do," Vaughan says.

Foreigners' nationality plays a large role when U.S. officials attempt to sift out visa applicants who say they merely want to visit but actually want to stay and work here, says Wayne Merry, a former Foreign Service officer who was stationed in the Balkans and what was then the Soviet Union. "If you're a drug smuggler from Sweden, your chances of getting in are almost 100 percent. If you're a perfectly responsible, God-fearing person from Guatemala, your chances of getting in are maybe 10 percent," he estimates. "We already profile. Ask anybody from South America or the Caribbean. We profile all the Southern damn Hemisphere. We profile all of Africa."

In contrast, before 9/11, the U.S. message to Middle Easterners was: If you have money, come on in. Because economic profiling failed to keep out the September 11 hijackers and allowed alleged "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid to hop a flight from Paris to Miami, Merry and other analysts say that very different and more-sophisticated standards are necessary. Anti-terror profiling will "inevitably be discriminatory to people coming from certain countries," Merry says. "If you look at all the people associated with Al Qaeda, that's religion. When it gets to a definition that inevitably centers on religion, it makes people feel uncomfortable." He quickly adds, "It makes me feel uncomfortable."

In the months since September 11, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have developed a rudimentary profiling system--based on gender, age, and national origin--that several analysts deride as doing little to actually deter terrorism. Male visa applicants who are between the ages of 16 and 45 and from the 26 specified Muslim countries must pass FBI background checks before getting visas. And since January, the State Department has required all male visa applicants in that age group to answer an extra page of questions about skills with biological or nuclear weapons and about international travel. Those applicants also must supply the phone numbers of schools they have attended and must list any organizations they have joined.

Meanwhile, on April 1, the State Department restricted the travel of aliens residing in the United States with expired visas if they are from one of the seven countries considered to be state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Before April 1, such people could travel to Canada or Mexico from the United States if they had already applied for a visa extension. Ironically, under the new regulation, foreigners whom the State Department considers potentially dangerous might well be more reluctant to leave the United States--because if they do, they won't be able to return without a new visa.

Despite efforts to make it more difficult for terrorists to enter this country, glaring loopholes remain. For example, the U.S. consulates in Saudi Arabia are still offering the U.S. Visa Express program, which uses 10 private companies as intermediaries--so that applicants need never see a U.S. official face-to-face. At least three of the September 11 hijackers were reported to have received their visas through this program.

Also, even though the federal government is attempting to screen visa applicants more thoroughly, the citizens of 28 countries (most of them in Europe) are still allowed to enter the United States without a visa. This means that half of the approximately 31.5 million foreign visitors who enter this country legally each year have never had to apply for a visa.

For a would-be terrorist who can obtain a passport from an exempt country, entering the United States is probably as simple as buying a plane ticket. INS agents, who serve as the only check on foreigners who legally enter without a visa, are provided the names of incoming passengers, but those agents have little way of verifying passengers' identities or otherwise investigating their backgrounds.

Taking Profiling to a Higher Level

Canadian officials wanted to crack down on the yakuza, a Japanese organized-crime ring operating in Canada. Kim Rossmo, then a constable for the Vancouver police, was called in to train border-control officials at the Vancouver airport to identify yakuza members. "Guess what," he recalls, "was the first and most important factor: Are they Japanese?" He also told border agents to be on the lookout for people wearing flashy clothing, women wearing four-inch heels, and anyone exhibiting certain types of behavior. Targeting potential terrorists is more complex but follows the same principles, Rossmo says. "I think profiling is important," he adds. "You just need to make sure the profiling tools work."

Now the director of research for the Washington-based Police Foundation, Rossmo recently submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, for developing a "geographic and demographic model" of terrorist cells in the United States. If approved, he says, his 18-month project might give border-control agencies a better idea of how to weed out terrorists.

The Central Intelligence Agency has considerable information about various sorts of terrorists, according to Melvin Goodman, a former Soviet analyst for the CIA. But, he adds, piecing that data together to create useful terrorism-prevention profiles hasn't been an agency priority: "The question is how good they are at looking at the stones of the mosaic. We've neglected analysis."

The terrorism-risk profiling system advocated by many analysts would be similar to that used by credit card companies in monitoring fraud. In the view of security consultant Severin L. Sorensen, profiles designed to pick out the would-be terrorists from the endless stream of foreigners seeking to enter this country should be based on many characteristics. Each trait would be weighted, based on the likelihood that it makes someone an increased risk to U.S. security. A specific visa applicant's status as a cleric, for example, might be deemed more significant than his age. A Foreign Service officer could decide how to proceed--whether to call an applicant in for an interview, for example--based on the applicant's risk-assessment profile.

"What you're really looking for is extremes and outliers," said Sorensen, who served in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the first Bush administration and is now the president of SPARTA Consulting, a physical security company.

Experts in criminology and terrorism suggest a number of broad categories that could be incorporated into a detailed terrorism-risk profile. Among the characteristics that could raise red flags: education (subjects studied and school location); travel patterns; and links to suspect organizations, such as radical mosques. Security analysts also advise giving close scrutiny to naturalized citizens of other countries applying from their adopted homeland; foreigners applying from outside their home country; and those who are clearly "visa shopping" (applying at more than one U.S. consulate).

Some characteristics that experts say should be included in terrorism profiles are particularly controversial: ideology and religious intensity, for example. In 1990, Congress stopped barring visa applicants based on ideological statements. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, argues that change "handcuffs consular officers from denying people visas simply because they're leading the `Death to America' rally in Karachi every Tuesday or if their sermons at the mosque call for gassing the Jews and killing the Americans. That's crazy."

Religious intensity, Sorensen argues, should be included as a risk factor because of the known link between religious extremism of any kind and a tendency to commit terrorist acts. Another analyst urged that profiles distinguish between native-born and naturalized citizens of countries that are U.S. allies. Germany, for example, is a favorite destination of Afghans and Iranians, many of whom have become naturalized German citizens.

And several experts caution against assuming that certain characteristics--being female or a refugee, for example--automatically mean that someone is not a would-be terrorist.

Much of the information that the U.S. government is gathering in the wake of 9/11 is potentially helpful in creating terrorism-risk profiles for use in figuring out which visa applications should be denied. Interviews with the prisoners from the war in Afghanistan and with people detained in this country after the terrorist attacks are an obvious source of vital data.

The INS plans to install an entry-exit system that tracks foreigners as they come into and leave this country. Former consular official Vaughan said that a detailed list of people who have overstayed their visas could provide valuable information about the kinds of foreigners who shouldn't be admitted in the first place. Meanwhile, she added, U.S. consulates should be collecting more information abroad about potentially dangerous groups and their members' characteristics.

Several software companies, including Oracle and Siebel Systems, are retooling to assess the risk of someone's being a terrorist instead of the probability of his switching long-distance phone service. Oracle's Hoechst said that if the myriad federal agencies involved would collect and share the right sorts of information, his company could build a system that would give border-control agencies daily warnings about foreigners belonging to certain groups, for example, or those coming from particular regions of a given country. A sophisticated profiling system could be up and running in five years, Hoechst says. "The potential here is extraordinary. It's astonishing what can be done," he adds.

Similarly, Siebel Systems has a computer program that, it says, would have raised enough warning flags about 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta that he would have been barred from legal entry.

One enormous question, however, is what kind of information should be viewed as a warning flag when policy makers and computer programmers don't have the advantage of being able to work backward-of knowing that Atta was someone who should have been kept out. That's where the tech companies punt to the government. "Determining what those attributes are is going to be pretty key. It really depends on the policies that organizations like the INS want to implement," acknowledges Matthew Malden, Siebel's vice president for homeland security. "We're just a technology company."

Border Security's Third Rail

An Algerian applies for a student visa at a U.S. consulate in London and is refused. Hearing the verdict, the Algerian bangs on the window of the visa booth and screams at the official who has turned him down. The consular officer, distraught that she may have succumbed to her own post-9/11 fears and prejudices, eventually reverses her decision.

That story line, from an episode of the short-lived television program "The American Embassy," helped bring the issue of risk profiling into American living rooms. "It's important for the average citizen to think about where we draw this [profiling] line, because it has ramifications beyond terrorism," notes an aide to a House Democrat.

And if Congress were able to separate the discussion of terrorist profiling from the explosive topic of racial profiling, Democrats and Republicans might find substantial common ground. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, says that although national origin is a necessary component of terrorism-risk profiling, it is only one of many characteristics that should be taken into account when deciding whether a foreigner should be granted a visa or allowed onto a U.S.-bound airplane.

Would the House Democratic aide, who is strongly opposed to "racial profiling," endorse a more sophisticated, statistically based type of profiling? "The answer is yes," he says, "and law enforcement knows how to do it, but it requires work and diligence."

Would Republicans go along with this kind of profiling? "I would think so," said one House Republican aide. "Certainly the State Department should take a look at that. Law enforcement would benefit dramatically from being able to screen people out." He adds that the travel and hotel industries would like it, too, because it would stave off the possibility of more-drastic government measures, such as ending the visa-waiver program or denying visas to everyone from countries on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Yet former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner remains cautious and says, "I would be very, very wary of anything that is nationality-specific. I think that the guilt by association ... is not American, and it's not effective." And as the House Democratic aide pointed out, targeting visa applications from young Middle Eastern males could miss a lot of potential terrorists. "Unless we add Germany to the group, how many of these [9/11 terrorists] would we have caught?" the aide asks.

Profiles also run the risk of fostering complacency, said Susan Forbes Martin, former executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. "We're always profiling on the last threat rather than the next threat," she argues. "You're always behind the curve, dealing with the profile you know about rather than the one you don't." Pointing out that two Palestinian women recently transformed themselves into bombs, Martin contends that smart, well-funded terrorists would adjust their plans to avoid being detected by whatever risk-assessment profiles the United States employs.

And Laura Donohue, a terrorism expert at Stanford University, worries that profiles foster anti-American hostility among law-abiding foreigners who are denied entry under the mistaken assumption that they pose a risk. "It's going to be unfairly levied on people of Islamic faiths. Aren't these the very people we want to draw in?" she asks. "We need to be very, very careful right now."

But advocates of profiling say these arguments just highlight the need to bring as many elements as possible into the mix, thus reducing the emphasis on politically sensitive issues of race and religion. "I can't imagine the logic of resisting a profiling system for the purposes of a more focused review," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. He said that if border officials are given a profile based on statistical probability, they're actually less likely to use stereotypes. And experts who favor terrorism-risk profiling say that the process should be used in concert with--not in place of--"lookout" databases, random checks, and common sense.

Despite the queasiness that many government officials still have over the topic of profiling, September 11 unquestionably changed the stakes in many people's minds. "Whether or not you can ever take into account ethnicity is related to the nature of the harm involved," said Rep. Frank, a die-hard civil libertarian. "I'm willing to accept more government intervention, generally, to prevent mass murder than to prevent people from smoking marijuana."