Nearly seven years after the 9-11 attacks, the Bush administration is finally reconsidering its opposition to one of the most effective counterterrorism weapons at its disposal. In the months ahead, FBI agents may be able to profile potential terrorists on the basis of suspicious traits and activities, including their ethnic and religious backgrounds. Those most likely to commit acts of Islamic terrorism will no longer be able to hide in plain sight.
It is a modest step. The Justice Department insists that the “FBI is not going to open an investigation simply on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion.” Still, the fact these factors can now be taken into consideration at all represents significant progress. Contrary to what one may hear from its opponents, profiling has a record of proven success on the counterterrorism front.
Consider the case of Maher “Mike” Hawash. Outwardly, Hawash was an immigrant any country would want. Young and educated, a successful engineer and family man, the Palestinian-born Hawash had arrived in America in 1984, at age 20, and appeared well integrated into his new country’s society.
But that changed in 2000. Hawash began to grow a beard, wear Arab clothing, and pray five times a day at his mosque. In his home, he hosted suspicious Middle Eastern-looking men.
Concerned neighbors took notice. They reported Hawash’s unusual lifestyle changes to the FBI that year, triggering an investigation. In 2003, agents arrested Hawash, who subsequently received a seven-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to aiding the Taliban.
Even before 9/11, the Hawash case demonstrated that ethnic and religious profiling could be a powerfully effective counterterrorism tactic. Indeed, security authorities have long been aware of the efficacy of profiling. As a result, they have been requesting permission to use it since 9/11, with the aim of doing what Congress, and the American public, expect of them: preventing terrorist attacks.
It is only this month, however, that the Bush administration has gotten the message. In early July, Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced that he is “revising guidelines relating to investigations.” The new guidelines may finally allow the FBI to practice ethnic and religious profiling.
Under the revised rules, authorities will be able to monitor factors like:
This will enable the authorities to launch investigations on the basis of terrorists’ demonstrated profiles and patterns. It is all in keeping with a move to adapt the FBI from a reactive, crime-fighting organization into a modern counterterrorist agency tasked with preventing the loss of American life.
- travel to countries with high levels of terrorist activity;
- military or weapons training; and
- suspect ideological or occupational backgrounds.
Why hasn’t this transition taken place earlier? The Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald offered several explanations as long ago as 2004. Topping the list was former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. A Democrat appointed by President Bush as part of his futile effort to “reach across the aisle,” Mineta refused – even post-9/11 – to implement what most would consider a logical and life-saving measure.
Mineta’s opposition to racial profiling was rooted in his personal experience and ideology rather than any assessment of the data. Of Japanese ancestry, he had been interned, along with his family and 77,000 other Japanese-Americans, during World War II. After 9/11, he opposed racial profiling until his resignation two years ago – despite the fact that the terrorist enemy was easily identifiable by culture, religion, and geographic origin. Unmoved by that reality, Mineta, the only Democrat on President Bush’s cabinet, suggested in an interview that a grandmother from Vero Beach, Florida, should be considered no more suspicious by airport security than a young Saudi male. And although proponents of ethnic profiling advocated nothing of the kind, he also warned that WWII-type internment could occur again were profiling to be enacted.
The issue had been further complicated by the Bush brand of compassionate conservatism. The Bush administration distanced himself from racial profiling for domestic crime early on, and some in his cabinet extended this to terrorism. “This administration…has been opposed to racial profiling and has done more to indicate its opposition than ever in history,” boasted Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002. Administration officials declined to explain why the prohibition of a demonstrably effective counterterrorism measure should be cause for celebration.
To be sure, the Bush administration isn’t solely to blame. Legal Left pressure groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and Arab-American lobbying groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, played a pivotal role in delaying the implementation of a sensible profiling policy. Underlying these organizations’ opposition to the measure is their shared belief that both the policy and the agencies that would enforce it are “racist.” Fearing the label, the Bush administration followed the politically correct line, refusing security agencies the use of this critical tool for the past seven years.
It is not the first time that these groups have adversely influenced national security. Both the Muslim and civil libertarian organizations were responsible for getting the Gore Commission on aviation security, set up in 1996 in response to the TWA 800 crash, to water down its profiling recommendations. The 1996 commission wanted the aviation industry to adopt the computer profiling system an airline company had already developed. But these groups made sure that there would be no profiling on the basis of “race, religion, or national origin of U.S. citizens.” This prevented Americans from preventing 9/11, the 19 hijackers of which all fit a highly specific profile, were permitted to board freely.
Not that these groups are in any way repentant. The ACLU’s Caroline Frederickson has spread fear about revived profiling, claiming the FBI would now be able to proceed “by assuming everyone is a suspect, and then you weed out the innocent.” Only last week, the ACLU asked Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to “avoid suggesting that Americans of a certain religion or ethnicity have a greater proclivity for ‘homegrown terrorism.’”
According to Frederickson, to take such factors into consideration would be “a grave national security mistake,” since a potential Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski could be overlooked. This disingenuous reasoning for a number of reasons. Racists and violent extremists are not only profiled but their groups are often subject to infiltration by FBI informers. It ignores the fact that the list of Muslims convicted in America of terrorism or terror-related activities is much longer than any list of white, native-born American terrorists. Moreover, while the Oklahoma Bomber and the Unabomber were essentially loners, Osama bin Laden has tens of thousands of Muslim followers who have committed thousands of terrorist acts around the world. But they are not dedicated to perpetrating destruction just anywhere; they are doing all they can to unleash unthinkable pain and suffering on American soil.
Fortunately, the Bush administration finally seems to realize that it cannot afford to keep an essential weapon out of its anti-terrorist arsenal. With al-Qaeda reconstituting itself to breach American security walls, it is past time. And while some will always disapprove of profiling, it has one compelling argument in its favor: It works. Just ask Maher Hawash.