Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Suspicious Activity Reporting Expands to LAX and Amtrak: A Recipe for Racial Profiling

In an expansion of the national Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR), law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials recently tied both Amtrak and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) into the initiative. Unfortunately, although SAR is meant to help intelligence analysts “connect the dots,” it has a major flaw: it encourages police to gather and share information about completely legal activities in which thousands of people engage every day. Many of these activities are so common that racial, religious, and ethnic factors often determine whether the activities are perceived as “suspicious.” [1]

On July 1, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the expansion of the See Something, Say Something campaign, originally launched after 9/11 by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and funded in part by $13 million from DHS’s Transit Security Grant Program. The campaign generated “tips” about Middle Eastern men “speaking in a foreign language” on their cellphones and about a person photographing trains at New York’s Penn Station. The photographer was participating in an Amtrak contest. Now the campaign is going national. Napolitano described the new Amtrak version as a “simple and effective program to raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism, crime, and other threats.” [2] (Could this program possibly be less specific about terrorist behavior than “See Something, Say Something”??)

On July 3, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) announced that it would expand its controversial and unproven iWatch program to LAX. The program encourages people to report activities that “do not seem right” and individuals who “do not seem to belong” to the authorities, vague standards that invite untrained citizens to act on the racial prejudices that often underlie their anxieties about terrorism, potentially distracting security professionals from real threats.

In its announcement, the LAPD boasted that iWatch is the “21st century version of neighborhood watch.” An educational component explains the kinds of activities in which terrorists engage and encourages people to report these. iWatch supporters point to this educational component to defend themselves against allegations of racial profiling, but the initiative is still too new to show whether it leads to useful tips. Despite this and other potential glitches, iWatch is already being marketed to and “adopted by law enforcement agencies nationwide.” [3]

Not one terrorism plot has ever been uncovered by a citizen-watch program. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid, Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abduulmutallab, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and even the 9/11 hijackers did nothing to arouse the suspicions of ordinary people before they boarded their aircraft. On June 6, 2010, two accused terrorists from New Jersey boarded a plane at JFK Airport that was flying to Egypt, yet nothing they did at the airport provoked anyone to “see something, say something.” [4] In some cases, even Homeland Security professionals trained to recognize the threats saw nothing unusual or did not do their jobs. Passengers acted appropriately and instinctively to subdue Reid and Abduulmutallab when they attempted to set off their bombs – but they didn’t need iWatch or similar programs to tell them to act with common sense.

TSA officials treat Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not, differently from the rest of the air traveling public. These travelers are routinely asked lengthy and inappropriate questions about their faith and personal politics when they enter the country, such as, “What is your religion? What mosque do you attend? How often do you pray? What charities do you contribute to? and What do you think of the war in Iraq?” [5] They are often targeted for discriminatory searches of laptops and other personal property. One Muslim father explained to the audience at an interfaith colloquium at New York University that his 21-year-old son, who is American-born and raised, is subjected to extra security every time he boards a plane. His son now feels disenfranchised in his own country.

Religious profiling at airports has intensified since the failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The number of people on the federal no-fly list, the majority of whom are Muslims and have no criminal records, has increased. People on the no-fly list can neither travel domestically nor return into the United States from abroad—so Americans who were traveling when the list was updated cannot re-enter to their country. The ACLU is currently litigating several such cases.

Suspicious-activity reporting at airports and transportation hubs has delivered nothing useful. In January 2002, police officers stopped an Arab American passenger en route to Washington, D.C., because the airplane’s pilot requested that he be “checked out” because he had “an Arabic name.” On October 28, 2001, three Arab American women were prevented from boarding their flight because airline personnel heard them quietly praying before the flight and became concerned upon hearing one of the women say the word “Allah.” [6] JetBlue and the Transportation Security Administration were forced to pay $240,000 to Raed Jarrar after they refused to permit him to board his flight while wearing a t-shirt that read, “We Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic and English. In January 2009, members of a large Muslim family on AirTran Flight 9 were removed from the plane because two of them had been casually speaking about the “safest place to sit on an airplane.” Even after the FBI cleared the group, AirTran refused to rebook them. [7]

Pushing iWatch in an environment where law abiding Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim members of the public are already subject to heightened scrutiny is irresponsible and harmful. It will stir up fear and anxiety among the traveling public, while also promoting the belief that government is doing something – even if it is theater – to keep them safer.

1. See Political Research Associates, Platform for Prejudice (March 2010) [web link]. See also, ACLU, “More About Suspicious Activity Reporting” (June 29, 2010)
3. See LAPD Blog, iWATCH Launches at Los Angeles International Airport Program Encourages Airport Visitors and Communities to Help Fight Terrorism (accessed 29 June 2010).
4. “Feds tracked N.J. terror suspects for years,” USA Today, June 8, 2010.
5. Muslim Advocates, “Unreasonable Intrusions,” April 2009.
6. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, “Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before & After September 11, 2001.”
7. ACLU and Rights Working Group, “Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States,” June 30, 2009.