Flying Blind

Flying Blind

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According to Michael Smerconish the U.S. government's airport security policy does not make common sense. If Muhammad Atta and the four of his friends who crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center showed up to board a flight, airline security personnel, even after 9/11, could not pull them out of the boarding line to ask them a single question. Why can't the airlines pull them out? Precisely because they resemble Atta and his terrorist gang. They are young Muslim men of Middle East descent.
Now, under U.S. law, the airlines have the duty to refuse to carry any person or thing that might pose a danger to the safety of a flight. And the Federal Aviation Act gives the plane Captain wide discretion to yank people or cargo off a flight provided only the Captain's exercise of his discretion is not arbitrary or capricious. But the way the law is written is not the way it is enforced under the upside down policy of political correctness imposed by Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

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The DOT claims to apply a "but for" test, meaning that if there are any other factors besides race, religion, sex, age, or national origin that arouse suspicion it is okay for the airlines to send a passenger to secondary screening. But in reality, the DOT sues the airlines even when those additional factors like a one-way ticket paid for in cash or concerns expressed by a Federal Air Marshall directly to the pilot are present. Since 9/11, the DOT has forced Continental, Delta, United, and American airlines to pay millions in fines for the 1 in 10 million passengers who has complained even when that passenger was questioned for suspicious factors other than ethnicity. The way the law is applied, if the airlines do stop someone who resembles the 9/11 terrorists they are guaranteed to get sued no matter what other circumstances are present.
Mineta's political correctness was unearthed by the 9/11 Commission through a single question asked by Commission member John Lehman during Condoleezza Rice's televised testimony: "Were you aware that it was the fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning?"
Not a single network, not a single newspaper picked up on this question. But the attorney and Philly talk-show host Mike Smerconish did.
Flying Blind is an account of Mike's one-man quest to discover how Mineta's DOT was perverting our law and bring the swiss cheese we call airport security to the attention of the public and Congress. We get a fascinating inside look at how the wall of political correctness keeps the government and the media from facing the facts about who the enemy is in the War on Terror. The DOT first lied about their policy then tried to discredit Smerconish as a bigoted kook. CNN dumped the story after calling him for an interview. But a handful of courageous men, Senators Dick Shelby and Arlen Specter, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehmen, and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, helped Mike Smerconish bring the issue to a Senate hearing.
Did the 9/11 Commission fix the problem? No, though they did praise the efforts of one airport screener who blocked the 20th hijacker from coming into the United States precisely because he fit the profile of a young Muslim man of Middle East descent.
Has Congress fixed the problem? No, but only they can, by writing a law to make clear it is okay to screen Muslim men of Middle East descent between the ages of 17 and 40 - the description of the perpetrators of every terrorist attrocity inflicted on our nation for the last 20 years.
To put it bluntly, "political correctness" has made a chronic mess of post-9/11 efforts to secure our country from Islamic terrorist attacks on our airlines, on our seaports, on our borders, on our infrastructure, and on our cities. Flying Blind, focuses specifically upon our airports and airlines and how anti-profiling tactics (first developed during the Clinton Administration and perpetuated under the Bush Administration) put 590 million airline passengers at risk every year for the past three years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Flying Blind exposes the absurdities that pass for airline security these days, but even more importantly, offers practical, effect, applicable solutions for fixing the problem of insecure airports, foolish nitpicking while the larger picture is ignored, and the shell game that's been going on (such as federalizing baggage inspector and airport security personnel by simply changing the color of their uniform jackets but providing little or no in service training to better do their jobs) to disguise just how vulnerable we continue to be. Flying Blind is a highly recommended wake up call--especially in this time of a presidential politics charged atmosphere of posturing and disassembling by all sides.
When his 8-year old son was picked out of an airport line for a secondary screening, Michael Smerconish was understandably exercised at the silliness that results from such random systems. Then he heard 9-11 Commissioner John Lehman engage in a line of questioning that he described in this essay,
Listen to Lehman: The press attention is on the wrong commissioners. (Michael Smerconish, April 15, 2004, National Review)
Richard Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey received the lion's share of media attention paid to last week's 9/11 Commission hearing with Condoleezza Rice, thanks to their generally intemperate questioning style. But while Ben-Veniste and Kerrey played to the cameras, it was their colleague, John Lehman, who was breaking new ground with the national-security adviser, but few noticed.

Lehman's focus was the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations. He told Rice that he was "struck by the continuity of the policies rather than the differences," and then he proceeded to ask Rice a series of blunt questions as to what she was told during the transition.

Among Lehman's questions was this: "Were you aware that it was the fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory?"

Rice replied: "No, I have to say that the kind of inside arrangements for the FAA are not really in my...." (Lehman quickly followed up: "Well, these are not so inside.")

Watching the hearings on television with the rest of the nation, I wondered what in the world Secretary Lehman was talking about. This, I'd never heard before. Was he saying that the security of our airlines had been sacrificed by political correctness? A few days after the klieg lights had faded, I had the chance to ask him.

"We had testimony a couple of months ago from the past president of United, and current president of American Airlines that kind of shocked us all," Lehman told me. "They said under oath that indeed the Department of Transportation continued to fine any airline that was caught having more than two people of the same ethnic persuasion in a secondary line for line for questioning, including and especially, two Arabs."

Wait a minute. So if airline security had three suspicious Arab guys they had had to let one go because they'd reached a quota?

That was it, Lehman said, "because of this political correctness that became so entrenched in the 1990s, and continues in current administration. No one approves of racial profiling, that is not the issue. The fact is that Norwegian women are not, and 85-year-old women with aluminum walkers are not, the source of the terrorist threat. The fact is that our enemy is the violent Islamic extremism and the overwhelming number of people that one need to worry about are young Arab males, and to ask them a couple of extra questions seems to me to be common sense, yet if an airline does that in numbers that are more than proportionate to their number in particular line, then they get fined and that is why you see so many blue haired old ladies and people that are clearly not of Middle Eastern extraction being hauled out in such numbers because otherwise they get fined."
This all led him to the conclusion that: "Logic dictates that airport security take a longer, harder look at individuals who have ethnic, religious, nationality, and appearance factors in common with the Islamic extremist Middle Eastern men who have initiated war against us." Unlike most of the rest of us, his position in public has afforded Mr. Smerconish the opportunity to have that opinion heard, on air, in print, and ultimately before a Senate committee, all of which experiences are detailed here.
Whether a full-length book is required to further the awfully limited argument -- that airlines and the TSA should be allowed to profile young men of Arab descent -- seems somewhat dubious, even if his point is near inarguable. Still, there's certainly no harm in someone keeping the feds feet to the fire until the rules are changed and security concentrated on more likely risks than little kids and grandmothers.
Even on this limited point Mr. Smerconish's focus is too narrow. He claims that were he a member of the profiled group he'd not object, given the legitimate national security concerns; however, he does not suggest, as the evidence suggests he should, that the profiling be expanded to include his own cohort. He mentions John Walker Lindh, Robert Reid (the Shoe Bomber), Timothy McVeigh, and others in passing, but is overly dismissive of their example. Indeed, at one point he discusses a purported al Qaeda cell that John Ashcroft warned the nation about and which included 6 Arab men and one American--the former Adam Pearlman. He argues that this breakdown shows that the main threat comes from Arabs, but it just as obviously indicates that a broader scrutiny, of all young white men, is justified. In fact, while it would presumably be fairly easy to pick out the young Arab men once you start looking for them, imagine the level of sifting you'd require to pick out the one American? Are all of us white men--say between the ages of 15 and 50--going to tolerate the kind of investigation and intrusion that it would require to find an Adam Pearlman? It seems unlikely.
Smerconish learns from Secretary Lehman's (9/11 Commissioner and former Secretary of the Navy) that TSA/DOT has a policy that bans focusing secondary screening on any ethnic group - especially young Arab males, and then parlays that into 200 pages of boring repetition. Yes, DOT denied it, but the policy was confirmed by presidents of American, Southwest, and United airlines, and then investigated by various Senators. Such a position is ridiculous, given the fact that EVERY terrorism act committed to date against the U.S. has involved young Arab males.
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