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JihadJane, the Pakistani VIPs and why racial profiling at the airport may not make us that much safer

A couple of items in today’s newspapers need to be juxtaposed.

First, this:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A tour of the United States arranged by the State Department to improve ties to Pakistani legislators ended in a public relations fiasco when the members of the group refused to submit to extra airport screening in Washington, and they are now being hailed as heroes on their return home.

The leader of the parliamentary group, Senator Abbas Khan Afridi, said in an interview on Tuesday that before they were to board the flight for New Orleans, he and his colleagues were selected from a crowd of passengers at the airport and asked to stand aside.

They were then asked to accept a full-body scan by a machine, he said. Such body-scanning units are in use at 19 airports across the United States, and more are being installed.

One of Mr. Afridi’s colleagues, Akhunzada Chitan, told Mr. Mir on his “Capital Talk” program, “Going through a body scan makes you naked, and in making you naked, they make the whole country naked.”

With this:

A petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed high school dropout who allegedly used the nickname JihadJane was identified Tuesday as an alleged terrorist intent on recruiting others to her cause, as federal prosecutors unsealed criminal charges that could send her to prison for life.

Colleen Renee LaRose, 46, has been quietly held in U.S. custody since October on suspicions that she provided material support to terrorists and traveled to Sweden to launch an attack, according to federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is continuing to unfold.

LaRose, who lived in suburban Philadelphia, allegedly recruited men and women in the United States, Europe and South Asia to “wage violent jihad,” according to an indictment issued in Pennsylvania.

So let’s break it down: Our new policy of limited racial profiling on international flights turns out to alienate even the very people the U.S. government is trying to win over in the struggle against terrorism. (And, uh, if they were here as guests of the U.S. government, why couldn’t the government find some way of expediting the security process for them? Wouldn’t that have been the smart thing to do?) Meanwhile, it turns out you don’t have to be a 22-year-old male student from Islamabad to have terroristic intentions — a petite middle-aged blonde woman from suburban Philly also poses a threat.

Somebody might be able to make the case that our security procedures gain us more in safety than we lose in angry lost allies — but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t losing something. Clearly we are. But it’s worth noting that under current profiling procedures, JihadJane would’ve had a clearer path to get on an American plane than a car salesman from Peshawar. So I’m dubious that we’re getting enough additional safety to justify the problems we’re making for ourselves.

Racial and religious profiling, looking for terrorists on America’s airliners

That’s the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk, following up on my weekend blog post about new security rules aimed at overseas fliers. Ben writes that paying close attention to travelers from terror hotspots “is a marginal improvement over treating a 55-year-old Catholic housewife from Pittsburgh the same as a 21-year-old Muslim student from Peshawar.”

I respond:

First, the good news: The United States is not being indiscriminate in its discrimination. The countries that appear on the new security list aren’t just predominantly Muslim; most have long been designated as “state sponsors of terror,” and the rest are well-documented terror hot spots. Rather than treating all Muslims as a threat — Indonesia, Egypt and Jordan aren’t on the list, after all — security officials are now focusing on the places where trouble is located.

Now the bad news: This is probably just the first step.

There will be more attempted attacks on America, and it is now well-established that even failed terrorists bring a new round of security crackdowns. Now we’re profiling international fliers from a short list of troubled countries. Next, we’ll probably do the same on domestic flights — the 9/11 attackers flew from East Coast airports, after all. After that, the roster of countries will probably expand. We’ve started down the road of racial and religious profiling, ironically on the orders of our first black president, and it will be difficult to turn back.

Each turn of the screw will probably make sense on its own terms, but could end up backfiring. Why? Because it certainly does make sense to scrutinize a 21-year-old Muslim student from Peshawar more closely than a 55-year-old Catholic grandmother, but it makes much less sense to treat every single 21-year-old student from Peshawar as a potential or even likely terrorist — the vast, vast majority aren’t and never will be.

The “war on terror” is also a battle of ideas, after all. The more Muslims we treat like an enemy, the harder it will be to convince them that Islam itself is not our enemy. We end up doing Osama bin Laden’s job for him. And that does nothing good for our security.

Goodbye, civil liberties: The FBI can investigate you for terrorism just because it feels like it

Charlie Savage uncovers the FBI guidelines for beginning terrorism investigations. (Read the document here.) Word to the wise: Never give an FBI agent a funny look.

The manual authorizes agents to open an “assessment” to “proactively” seek information about whether people or organizations are involved in national security threats.

Agents may begin such assessments against a target without a particular factual justification. The basis for such an inquiry “cannot be arbitrary or groundless speculation,” the manual says, but the standard is “difficult to define.”

Assessments permit agents to use potentially intrusive techniques, like sending confidential informants to infiltrate organizations and following and photographing targets in public.

If you cannot define the standard, you cannot violate the standard. Basically, this is a blank check to the FBI to investigate whomever it pleases for any reason — or no reason — at all. But the FBI denies that will happen:

But Valerie Caproni, the F.B.I.’s general counsel, said the bureau has adequate safeguards to protect civil liberties as it looks for people who could pose a threat.

“Those who say the F.B.I. should not collect information on a person or group unless there is a specific reason to suspect that the target is up to no good seriously miss the mark,” Ms. Caproni said. “The F.B.I. has been told that we need to determine who poses a threat to the national security — not simply to investigate persons who have come onto our radar screen.”

I take seriously the need to prevent terror attacks. But: The FBI ought to have specific reasons to start delving into the lives of its citizens. Terrorism prevention by hunch will absolutely have bad results.

She also said that the F.B.I. takes seriously its duty to protect freedom while preventing terrorist attacks. “I don’t like to think of us as a spy agency because that makes me really nervous,” she said. “We don’t want to live in an environment where people in the United States think the government is spying on them. That’s an oppressive environment to live in and we don’t want to live that way.”

Indeed.