Questions raised over airport profiling

December 29, 2009 7:23:09 PM PST
The attempted bombing of the Northwest airliner is raising a lot questions about effective security, including who should get singled out for screening, and if Muslim-Americans and others are being unnecessarily targeted.

Some Muslim-Americans claim they are being profiled on the basis of their religion and that profiling is actually getting in the way of catching the bad guys.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said she could not talk about profiling passengers. Sources say the agency is frankly scared of talking about it.

"Well let me tell you, profiling is alive and well. Anyone that says they're not profiling passengers is lying," says ABC7's aviation consultant Ron Wilson.

As for the folks getting profiled, ABC7 spoke with a number of frequent flyers who say they get extra attention every time they fly.

"I see it as just a very unfair discriminatory practice," says Mahin Ibrahim, who works in online advertising at Google.

"I wish it was only patting me down. They first they search my clothes and everything I have and in many cases they actually take me aside and interrogate me," says Azzam Abdo, who makes semi conductors.

"They do a strip search and they search your luggage before the TSA will let you go," says Mahmood Khan, an I.T. consultant, formerly with Hewlett Packard.

Khan says when he's traveling 100,000 miles a year it becomes a huge waste of time and energy.

But is it legal?

"Actually, profiling is a very powerful tool for law enforcement, but there is a clear line between legitimate and illegitimate uses of a profile," says ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson, a former San Mateo County prosecutor.

Johnson says it is legitimate to use a profile to focus attention on a particular person, but it is what happens next that matters.

"Profiles cannot be used as a basis for arrest, search, detention, seizure, or as proof of guilt," says Johnson.

Johnson says holding a passenger for interrogation based on his religion or ethnic origin crosses the line.

"They ask me all kinds of questions... political things, 'Do you like Ahmadinejad? What do you think about Iran? What do you think about Israel? Do you love America,'" says Abdo.

The director of the Bay Area Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Zahra Billoo, tells ABC7 when airport screeners focus on anyone who looks Middle Eastern or Muslim, the screeners may miss more important indicators.

"If someone is in line and they look shifty, if they look like they have a suspicious package, if they're behaving in a way that concerns people around them, if they're acting out of the ordinary, then that is a reason to profile them. If someone is speaking a different language, that is not generally a reason to profile an individual," says Billoo.

Al Qaeda and its related organizations are made up of Islamic extremists, but as the country found with the Christmas Day attempt, they do not all come from the same region or dress the same or speak the same language.

Wilson says screeners need much better training to know what to look for.


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