a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The TSA scanner controversy: let’s be careful what we wish for

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th November 2010

The ‘Don’t Touch My Junk’ video. Mr. Tyner’s account is here.

The TSA’s recent decision to require full body scans of passengers — or require those turning down the scan to submit to an aggressive search — has erupted as one of the biggest stories since the election, and certainly the biggest story this Thanksgiving week.

Various groups from FireDogLake to the ACLU are disseminating “know your rights” materials, and an “Opt Out Day” movement is bidding to slow air travel security lines to a standstill by opting for the slower, more personnel-intensive pat-down.  Meanwhile humorists are having a field day with it.*

But two diametrically opposite Washington Post columnists both get at an underlying problem with all of this: what’s your alternative?  Liberal stalwart Eugene Robinson puts it this way:

What the critics really mean is not that the TSA should let underwear bombers board planes. What they’re saying is: Don’t search me, and don’t search my grandmother. Just search the potential terrorists.

In other words, they want profiling. That’s a seductive idea, I suppose, if you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about civil liberties. But it couldn’t possibly work. Our terrorist enemies may be evil, but they’re not stupid.

At the other end of the spectrum, neo-con stalwart Charles Krauthammer agrees — it’s just that he thinks profiling is a good thing:

…everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. […] This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

Expect to hear much, much more use of the word “Israelification” as the debate about scanning continues.  Israel doesn’t use the devices at all and hasn’t suffered an airline attack in ages.  Instead, Israelis rely on, well, profiling to get the job done.  Israeli security expert Rafi Sela explains to Cathal Kelly of The Star:

“The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from? “Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” Sela said. Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of “distress” — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory. “The word ‘profiling’ is a political invention by people who don’t want to do security,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behaviour. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?”

That depends what’s done  and how — and it’s mainly equal treatment and reasonable basis for suspicion that is the concern, not privacy per se.  If Israeli security meet those concerns, that’s great, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether we’d ever hear otherwise.

Much is being made of a left-right civil liberties alliance around this issue, with the ACLU, Ron Paul, liberal superblogger Jane Hamsher, and Charles Krauthammer all criticizing or mocking the TSA’s invasive procedures. But each of these groups and people start with very different assumptions, and are likely to draw different conclusions about how to address airline security.  I think the “mosque at Ground Zero” controversy shows there’s a great deal of support for considering Muslim-Americans guilty until proven innocent.

Don’t get me wrong: I mock the airline security arrangements, too.  They’re largely “security theater” designed, at best, to catch very, very stupid terrorists — while accustoming Americans to ever more invasive security procedures.  So I welcome the protests — I just wish many of the same people would spend as much time on torture accountability, or peace activism, as they do in weighing the cost of infinitesimal radiation effects against similarly infinitesimal security gains.

* My favorite so far: Tom Tomorrow, who has a Mr. Cleaver type affirm that “I fly with confidence, knowing that carry-on toiletries are limited to multiple SMALL bottles rather than a single LARGE bottle!”  Mrs. Cleaver agrees, “You’d have to be some kind of terrorist MASTERMIND to figure out a way around THAT!”

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Dubai Ports World

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th February 2006

Writing for “The Nation,” William Greider has himself a good laugh about Bush’s demagoguery coming home to roost:

David Brooks, the high-minded conservative pundit, dismissed the Dubai Ports controversy as an instance of political hysteria that will soon pass. He was commenting on PBS, and I thought I heard a little quaver in his voice when he said this was no big deal. Brooks consulted “the experts,” and they assured him there’s no national security risk in a foreign company owned by Middle East Muslims–actually, by an Arab government–managing six major American ports. Cool down, people. This is how the world works in the age of globalization.

Of course, he is correct. […]

Greider concludes:

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?
Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it.

Unlike digby, I’d say this is only partly right. Fearmonger-in-chief: check. Many fears are bogus, inflated: check. Bush knows that at some level: check. But specific concerns about the Dubai Port deal being inflated and bogus: well… how does Greider know? How does Bush know? How do any of us know? Is it unreasonable to want to find out? Maybe Greider, Kevin Drum, digby (“right on the money“), and others are right to think this is nothing more than political poetic justice, but I’m less sanguine about the merits of allowing the sale to go forward.

A recent Zogby/AAI poll* indicates overwhelmingly negative opinions towards the United States in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai Ports World is based. Arguably deservedly so — the reasons given are American mistreatment of Arabs and the Iraq war. So I’m willing to stipulate, for the sake of argument, that 99% of Dubai Port employees and management back at the home office are superb human beings who I’d be lucky and honored to have dinner with. That still leaves awkward facts like two UAE 9/11 hijackers and members of the UAE royal family reportedly joining a hunting party with Bin Laden in Afghanistan back in 1999.

I’m assured, and do not doubt, that DP World will have to work with U.S. customs, Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials day in, day out at these American ports. Why the latter should fill me with confidence is beyond me, but again, let’s assume everyone’s doing a heckuva job for the sake of argument.

What one still has is a company that literally has bought the keys to America’s front door, and that is based in and owned by a government and a Wahhabist aristocratic ruling class with a few strikes against it. You would think government ownership of a port facility ought to be against conservative and free-market principles, the more so when the government itself is an unaccountable family affair. But what do I know.

I’m asked to believe ownership of these port facilities would pose no additional risk to Americans. Yet ownership, at least to me, means Dubai Port board member, vice president, or upper management man X would have a substantially easier time observing customs and homeland security procedures, monitoring shipments, manipulating port records, and/or arranging physical access to these ports than he did before the sale. X and/or his angry young cousin, that is: the same AAI poll indicates people there consider nepotism the most important reason jobs are hard to find in the UAE.

But again, what do I know. Maybe “things don’t work that way”; maybe the emir of Dubai himself will not be able to pull up a chair and download the shipping records and inspection protocols for Dubai Port World’s operations in Philadelphia. Show me — and because I won’t believe you the first time, show me again and try harder.

To call that racist or “anti-Arab,” as variously Rush Limbaugh, Tom Friedman, and the Arab American Institute do, is to drain that word of all meaning. There are good reasons to want to know who exactly controls Dubai Ports World, and what safeguards, if any, stand between us and a “Bin Laden II” using this company’s access to American ports to his advantage.

Writing for Wired Magazine (and excerpted at his blog), security expert Bruce Schneier makes sense:

Pull aside the rhetoric, and this is everyone’s point. There are those who don’t trust the Bush administration and believe its motivations are political. There are those who don’t trust the UAE because of its terrorist ties — two of the 9/11 terrorists and some of the funding for the attack came out of that country — and those who don’t trust it because of racial prejudices. There are those who don’t trust security at our nation’s ports generally and see this as just another example of the problem.

And there are those of us so far gone as to not trust the Bush administration, the UAE’s ruling class, and our nation’s port security, all at the same time. Schneier concludes:

The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn’t compromise security, voters — at least the particular lawmakers we trust — need to understand that.

Now that’s “right on the money.” The Bush administration has to prove it’s safe to me— the more so since they usually argue we must accept all kinds of other crimes and moral failures in the name of national security.

*AAI: Arab American Institute. 500 UAE respondents surveyed 10/18/05–10/24/05; 21% favorable to US, 73% unfavorable; 44% say nepotism is chief cause of employment difficulties in the country. MOE +/- 10%.

NOTES: Greider, Limbaugh (actually “Seeing the Forest” cite of Limbaugh) links via “Hullabaloo.” Friedman excerpted by Atrios. Zogby/AAI lead via publius (“Legal Fiction”), who cites older 2004 data. Their discussions are worth reading, and I agree with much of each writer’s post.
UPDATE, 2/23: In Tapped, Yglesias disputes Friedman et al’s charges of racism against those questioning the port deal, for reasons similar to mine. And a Rasmussen poll shows only 17% of Americans approve of the Dubai Ports deal, while 63% disapprove. (1000 respondents, 2/22-23, MOE +/- 4%) (via Atrios).

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Specialty blogwatch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th October 2005

This is just a quick survey of recent posts from some of the interesting, specialized blogs I read now and then from my “specialty” blogroll — maybe you’ll start reading one or the other of them, too.

Schneier on Security — Those tiny little yellow dots you never noticed? They’re Secret Forensic Codes in Color Laser Printers: Many color laser printers embed secret information in every page they print, basically to identify you by. Here, the EFF has cracked the code of the Xerox DocuColor series of printers.

Mystery PollsterGetting Past the Noise: Bush Slide Continues (10/19/2005): The bottom line: the President’s approval has fallen all year, declining about 1% every month since January. But since August we’ve seen a sharper drop. Call it the “Katrina effect.”

Lunar DevelopmentShall McArthur return?: “Russia has met all the engagements on transferring NASA employees to the ISS. Formally, we even do not have to return McArthur to the Earth,” Russia’s space agency Roskosmos senior official Alexey Krasnov said.[] Karen Cramer writes that the story is connected to the Iran Non-proliferation Agreement as well.

Savage Minds — No more “Bushmen of the Kalahari.” Bushmen expelled from Homeland: All but a few of the Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve have been forcibly removed from their homes in recent days in what spokesmen for the affected communities said is a final push by the government to end human habitation there after tens of thousands of years. [Washington Post, 10/10/2005] … Before forced removals started in the late 90s, there were over 2,000 Bushmen living there.

The Panda’s Thumb — Covering the “intelligent design” case in Pennsylvania with Waterloo in Dover: The Kitzmiller v. DASD case: The defense needs to defeat the plaintiffs’ arguments concerning both the purpose and the effect of the “intelligent design” policy. For the second, they are most likely to try to convince Judge Jones that “intelligent design”, and specifically the policy adopted by the DASD, are scientific in character, and thus have a place in the science curriculum regardless of any secondary effect they might have in the way of having implications for religious belief. DASD is the Dover Area School District, which is trying to enforce ‘intelligent design’ teaching in biology classes. The post is now updated with new developments every couple of days or so as the case proceeds.

RealClimateGlobal Warming On Earth discusses the latest NASA Goddard Institute surface temperature data analysis: The 2005 Jan-Sep land data (which is adjusted for urban biases) is higher than the previously warmest year (0.76°C compared to the 1998 anomaly of 0.75°C for the same months, and a 0.71°C anomaly for the whole year) , while the land-ocean temperature index (which includes sea surface temperature data) is trailing slightly behind (0.58°C compared to 0.60°C Jan-Sep, 0.56°C for the whole of 1998).

Chris Mooney — Henry Waxman (D-CA-30) is Busy, busy on a number of Bush vs. science fronts, including avian flu, misinformation about sexual health on a government web site, and the ongoing Plan B “morning after pill” fiasco at the FDA. On the latter: The chronology ends with yet another resignation: that of Frank Davidoff, a former FDA advisory committee member who voted for the approval of Plan B and who wrote, “I can no longer associate myself with an organization that is capable of making such an important decision so flagrantly on the basis of political influence, rather than the scientific and clinical evidence.” (link added)

BlogrelReturn to Gyumri: What lessons could Pakistan learn from Armenia’s sputtering reconstruction process, which, 17 years later, has 3,500 families in the city still living in “temporary accommodation” – a euphemism for shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons? [Guardian]

Effect MeasureYou can’t stop a wrecking ball in mid-swing: As state and local health departments gear up to battle a possible avian flu outbreak, they face a sharp cut in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the loss could be fixed through funds intended to cover the costs of controlling a pandemic, added as an amendment to the 2006 Defense Department Appropriations bill.

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Patriot Act

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd July 2005

Yesterday, Billmon noted that amid all the justifiable interest in the Rove/Plame affair (and now the Roberts nomination), a very important development was going nearly unremarked: the extension of the Patriot Act. He links to Thom Haslam (“Societas”), who writes:

I have no objections to political junkies getting their fix. But now would be a good time to take brief break from bingeing. Your country really does need you. Chances are, to be brutally honest, nothing you do over the next few days will make a huge difference either way with Rove or Roberts–not unless you have access to information that even Patrick Fitzgerald or the White House does not. But you can make a huge difference–as a citizen and as blogger–with the Patriot Act.This, as the saying goes, is a limited opportunity. Congress will vote to renew and possibly expand the Patriot Act today, tomorrow or early next week. This will all be over long before Roberts has a hearing, before Fitzgerald finishes his investigation.

Click here to at least send an e-mail petition to your Senators, via the ACLU. Here’s their summary of the Patriot Act:

Expands the government’s power to search your home in secret and to delay telling you for months or indefinitely. Section 213 made it easier for government agents to get courts to issue “sneak and peek” search warrants, which let them break into your home, rifle through your belongings, swab for DNA, copy files from your computer, seize property and keep you in the dark about the search for an indefinite amount of time. This provision is permanent, but would be reformed under the SAFE Act. At a minimum, it should be limited to a set amount of time and only allowed in true emergencies. The Justice Department recently admitted that 90% of these sneak and peeks have been used in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Facilitates access to secret court orders that allow agents to seize personal records. Section 215 lets the FBI apply for secret court orders to compel libraries, bookstores, hotels, hospitals and other institutions to turn over personal records without showing any facts connecting your records to a foreign terrorist, let alone probable cause that you did anything wrong. The judge is required to issue such an order if federal agents certify that they want these records for a foreign intelligence or terrorism investigation. The business that receives the order is forever gagged from telling anyone about it. This provision is set to expire. It should not be made permanent. It should be fixed to require a showing of specific facts connecting your records to a foreign terrorist and there should be a meaningful right to challenge, as supported by the SAFE Act.

Lets the FBI access business, credit, Internet and banking records without going through a judge at all. Section 505 broadens the government’s ability to issue “national security letters,” which allow the FBI to demand records about you from financial institutions, Internet service providers, telephone companies, credit agencies, insurance companies, car dealerships, and libraries that provide Internet services to patrons—all without going through a judge or demonstrating any facts connecting your records to a foreign agent or foreign terrorist. If not repealed, this provision should be amended to incorporate the modest SAFE Act fix and should include an expiration date.

For any readers (unjustifiably) allergic to the four letter acronym “ACLU,” here’s former Republican Representative Bob Barr:

The Patriot Act needs some common sense fixes to keep our liberty safe. Our Founding Fathers would want us to courageously defend our country and the Constitution. This is their legacy of liberty. We should rise to the challenge and preserve it rather than make a false sacrifice for extreme powers that don’t make us safer but actually make us less free.

See also this NPR summary of the bill and the issues.

I wrote “Senators” above because it’s already too late in the House (Billmon: “Chamber of People’s Deputies”) which voted early this morning to pass the Patriot Act 257-171. But, as Haslam notes in a comment at Seeing the Forest, it’s not too late to blanket the Senate with e-mails, phone calls, and letters urging them to hang tough with their version of the bill in the Senate and when they reconcile that bill with the House version.

Undoing the worst provisions of the Patriot Act — and sunsetting the rest — should become a central plank of the Democratic Party going in to 2006 and 2008.

I’ve mentioned this before, but not enough, and only in passing (“Feingold in Nashville“). I regret not doing more. Spread the word. E-mail your Senators. Blogswarm it. Do something. Better “too little, too late” than nothing at all, ever.

UPDATE, 7/23: One compilation of reactions to the Patriot Act is in progress at The Heretik: “Red, White, and Very Blue.” See also John Cole (“Balloon Juice”).
UPDATE, 7/25: Thom Haslan has a new post at Shakespeare’s Sister and his own blog urging people not to give up on either the Senate or the House (your representative may have some influence on the conference committee reconciling the two versions of the bill). He also has a Patriot Act Fact Sheet, prepared by the “Red, White, and Blue Alliance in PA” detailing the House bill’s effects on health, financial, gun, religious, and library privacy. The alliance includes Pennsylvania chapters of the ACLU, League of Women Voters, Council on American Islamic Relations, and others.

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Define terrorist; show your work

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th June 2005

In a couple of recent posts, Stygius proposed a kind of mental doctrine he says should inform all progressive/liberal national security thinking:

  1. There are a group of fanatic killers who want to kill as many Americans as they can; and,
  2. Dead terrorists can’t kill Americans.

In the second post, which should be taken as the more definitive statement, Stygius elaborates on what he does and doesn’t mean with what might be called the “Stygius doctrine”:

Hopefully, readers see that I’m talking about sentiments about right actions; about practical values. Thus, this is not a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!” sentiment. I fully acknowledge and embrace the notion that there can be conditions where killing terrorists can be impractical, or imprudent. That is why I’m talking about “appropriateness” and a broad, multi-faceted calculus of values. Rather, I’m asking skeptical progressives to accept the idea that there can be and are conditions where terrorists can be legitimately fought and killed.

I certainly accept that being prepared to fight to kill is a necessary part of dealing with any mortal foe. I think most people, even “skeptical progressives,” do. You enumerate the possibilities, and prepare yourself for them — as Hamlet concludes, “the readiness is all.”

My critique of Stygius’ doctrine isn’t so much to quarrel with it as to say the house is only half built. One problem is in the vague concept of ‘terrorist’; I’m not trying to be sarcastic when I say that they don’t come clearly labeled.

Unlike in a classic war, we can not be sure we know who the practitioners of terrorism are, much (much, much) less who are potential terrorists, and less yet what to do about these not-yet-terrorists. We have further problems with the term itself. Not long after 9/11, I tried my hand at defining “terrorism”. I decided that it was the self-appointed, unaccountable nature of terrorism that was its crucially dangerous and reprehensible feature. If so, it would seem obvious how not to fight against it.

I’ve grown a little wary of my own early certainties about the “war on terror,” yet I also know I still feel the incandescent anger I felt after 9/11. Then, “war” seemed right and just. Now, maybe it is still the best word, but the question is whether incandescent anger, shrewd moderation, or some judicious mixture thereof best serves us in protecting ourselves and our society against our foes.

I recall celebrating a Predator strike in 2002 on some terrorists — I was led to believe, and have little reason to doubt — in Yemen. Yet in the years since 9/11, I’ve grown so disillusioned with the directions American fighting and policy have taken, and the half-truths, quarter-truths, and one sixty-fourth truths offered in explanation, that I can wonder: was this strike, too, a publicity stunt or a necessary act? How sure are we — whether “we” who had our finger on the button launching the missile, or we the people — that those killed were part of al Qaeda, that they were involved in the USS Cole attack, and so forth? Will anyone with a critical mind ever get a chance to find out? I may have little reason to doubt the right thing was done, but in truth I have little reason to credit it either.

Whether such doubts are evidence of my liberalish lack of firm resolve, or of my government leading me down a primrose path one too many times is probably a matter of little importance to anyone but me. But if I’m not the only one with doubts, I think they illustrate one small price we, the people of the United States, pay for the unaccountable methods — foreign and domestic, political and military — that we’ve allowed in our name.

In his book “The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror,” (Princeton University Press, 2004) Michael Ignatieff examines the issues of proper and effective self-defense by liberal democracies against terror attacks. In it, Ignatieff proposes that all responses to the challenge of terror attack campaigns be subject to four tests: the dignity test (does the response respect human dignity?), the conservative test (if the response calls for changes to our own system, are those changes really necessary?), the effectiveness test (will the response work?), and open adversarial review (is the response subject to institutional and/or public review and approval?) It seems to me that we are failing, or close to failing, on all four counts. Ignatieff asks,

If force must be the ultimate response to violence against a constitutional state, what is to keep state violence from becoming as unconstrained as the enemy it is seeking to destroy? The only answer is democracy and the obligation of justification that it imposes on those who use force in its name. […]

The evil [of terrorism] does not consist in the resort to violence itself, since violence can be justified, as a last resort, in the face of oppression, occupation, or injustice. The evil consists in resorting to violence as a first resort, in order to make peaceful politics impossible.

We should not flirt with emulating that evil; we should make our war (when that is necessary) with terrorists the antithesis of theirs: transparent, subject to debate, principled. Fighting terrorists to the death — even apocalyptic, undeterrable ones like those on 9/11 — is a lesser evil only when their methods and outlook are clearly not adopted.

Stygius is a principled person, and I know he* does not support the excesses and ‘look the other ways’ of the Bush administration policies (plausibly deniable as such or not) at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere; his statements on his own blog and his frequent and welcome comments here underline that.

But I suspect many Bush administration people did not wake up on 9/12 knowing that’s the direction they were headed. (I also suspect some did; but that many did not.) Regardless; our country’s single-minded emphasis on a narrowly conceived national security and on death to our foes — while ignoring every other principle — has got us where we are now: in the mud, with far too much innocent blood on our hands, and far too much human indignity and injustice on our consciences. I dare not deny it: on my hands and on my conscience, too. Regarding his tests, Ignatieff writes:

If all this adds up to a series of constraints that tie the hands of our governments, so be it. It is the very nature of a democracy that it not only does, but should, fight with one hand tied behnid its back. It is also in the nature of democracy that it prevails against its enemies precisely because it does.

To be clear: there is a variety of terrorist that needs killing. To be equally clear: that’s not all there is to it. Not if we want to keep our principles and country intact.

* Or she, as the case may be.

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Ms. G635, could you step this way, please?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st May 2003

Andreas “dekaf” Schaefer commented on the story below about “no-fly” lists, pointing out that the Wall Street Journal has an April 23 item about it. From an excerpt of Ann Davis’ article (via a Chicago Indymedia contributor):

In checking passengers against the No Fly List, some airlines use techniques that were designed decades ago, and for an entirely different task: to let agents find passenger records quickly without having a full name or a name’s precise spelling.

These “name matching” systems also help airlines spot abusive bookings, in which travelers reserve a bunch of flights under slightly varying names. The idea is to cast a wide net. But when applied to a watch list, they have the perverse effect of flagging numerous travelers whose names are merely similar to one of those on the list.

One name-matching technique that airlines have used, called Soundex, dates back more than 100 years, to when it was invented to analyze names from the 1890 census. In its simplest form, it takes a name, strips out vowels and assigns codes to somewhat-similar-sounding consonants, such as “c” and “z.”

The article says that the airlines system is an updated version of Soundex, but the problem remains the same: you need a quick way to flag names you’re supposed to be watching out for, and you can either opt to reduce false positives or false negatives. A quirk in the system that has probably not helped Transportation Security Administration (TSA) credibility is that

…groups that purchase their tickets together end up in a single travel record. If one member triggers a hit on the watch list, computers lock up on them all.

This was the case for both the Gordon/Adams and the Lawinger examples of possible politically motivated “no-fly” hits mentioned in the Chronicle article that broke the story last year.

None of this argues against the ACLU lawsuit or the need for better oversight of the process, but it does suggest that there may be an innocuous explanation for surprising “no-fly” list “finds.” A new system, “CAPPS II,” (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) is being developed that the TSA hopes will “dramatically reduce” the number of people flagged. As Davis’ article concludes, though:

Privacy and civil-liberties advocates fear just the opposite — that the increased ways to attract suspicion will result in even more passengers being wrongly tagged.

In March, Senator Wyden (D-OR) won Senate Commerce Committee approval of an amendment to require some Congressional oversight of the CAPPS program. From the Senator’s press release:

“I’m all in favor of finding ways to be smarter about aviation security and to target aviation security resources more efficiently,” said Wyden. “But a system that seeks out information on every air traveler or anyone who poses a possible risk to U.S. security, and then uses that information to assign a possible threat ‘score’ to each one, raises some very serious privacy questions. It’s a matter of good public policy for the privacy and civil liberties implications of this program to be reported to Congress.”

The amendment envisions a report by the Secretary of Homeland Security detailing, among other things,

– what safeguards will be in place to guarantee that the information will be used only as officially intended;

– what efforts will be in place to mitigate errors and what procedural recourse will be available to passengers who believe they were wrongfully barred from a flight; and,

– what oversight procedures will be in place to guarantee that privacy and civil liberty concerns will be a priority as the program is installed, operated and updated.

I’d prefer spelling out those safeguards and oversight procedures for Mr. Ridge, rather than waiting to see what he’ll do. But I’ll take what I can get, and I’ll hope this measure makes it into law.

Meanwhile, via genealogy site, here’s a handy-dandy converter for you to get Soundex codes of your own. Bin Laden’s is B543 and Zawahiri’s is Z600, by the way. I share mine, N100, with “Newby.”


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Metro trash cans

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th January 2003

In “pack not a herd” mode, or at least in “herd member dully wondering what’s going on as he plods to work” mode:

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) made a relatively big deal of moving trash cans and so forth to safer locations. From the WMATA “Safety and security FAQ“:

…we have relocated all newspaper vending machines, trash receptacles, and recycling bins to station entrances/exits …

Not at Courthouse Metro, anyway. There are a couple of trash cans and recycling cans in a tight bottleneck just past the station-booth/turnstile area. While a May 2000 “Security Management” article I found says the cans are special reinforced cans, I’d rather there were none at all, or at least that they were near true open air entrance/exits, so blasts, germs, or gases wouldn’t be as confined as they would deep inside a Metro station.

I’ll keep you posted on this exciting story: I’m writing to WMATA, we’ll see what they say. If you know of other examples of poorly placed trash cans or other security-related questions, leave a message via “comments” or e-mail; better yet, let WMATA know.


UPDATE, January 24: I’ve added the text of WMATA responses to my emails as comments. The upshot as of today, and where things will probably remain, is that WMATA likes the cans where they are. My suggestion to remove them if the Homeland Security “threat level” increases to “orange” has been forwarded to Those Who Make Decisions In The Rail Department. (My suggestion for WMATA to pre-emptively attack the cans if we reach threat level “red” remains a closely guarded secret of the “newsrack” web site.)

UPDATE, February 10: Well, we’ve been in condition “orange” for a few days now, and no trash can movement.

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Best blog headline of 2003: first nomination

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th January 2003

Chad Orzel (“Uncertain Principles”) may have peaked too soon with When They Came for Me, I Said, “Hey! You Forgot the Jordanians!” I especially like how it will go “whoosh” right over a lot of heads, so here’s a little background.

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Letter to an ex-contrarian

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th November 2002

That’s the title of Katha Pollitt’s attempted dismissal of Christopher Hitchens in the latest edition of the Nation. Pollitt delivers a number of well-placed jabs at the pompous Orwell wannabe who, despite being an avowed contrarian, left the bulliest pulpit possible for debating the anti-war left. But these jabs weren’t among them:

Sure, there are plenty of people (not all of whom are leftists) who oppose this war because they oppose all US military intervention on principle, and maybe there is even some graduate student out there, mind addled by an all-Ramen diet, who believes that Osama bin Laden is merely a “misguided anti-imperialist.” But surely you know that lots of people oppose invading Iraq who supported the war in Afghanistan and intervention in Kosovo–why aren’t Mark Danner, Aryeh Neier and Ronald Dworkin on your radar screen? Who died and made Ramsey Clark commissar?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Pollitt pretty firmly in the anti-Afghanistan-war camp? Here’s what she wrote on September 20 a year ago, in “Put Out No Flags“:

Bombing Afghanistan to “fight terrorism” is to punish not the Taliban but the victims of the Taliban, the people we should be supporting. At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society–the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists.

As was her perfect right of course, but it seems pretty disingenuous for Pollitt to make those particular comments about Ramen-addled grad students or those “lots of people who supported the war in Afghanistan.”

At minimum, she might have acknowledged Hitchens was righter than she was about Afghanistan, or explained why she was right after all about that not being the right way to tackle the “more difficult task of going after Al Qaeda,” the task she’s now focused her laser beams on. Hitchens is hard to take, but as it stands, it seems to me he at least got one person right: Pollitt.

(Article and pull quote via Electrolite’s Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who is more appreciative.)

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Johnny Go To Jail

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th March 2002

Ginger Stampley replies (“Johnny Go Home”) to my item below (“Passport, please”) about Mr. Lindh:

If he’d come back and committed a terrorist attack, as Nephew suggests, things would be different. But he didn’t.

Once Lindh had done that, of course, we wouldn’t be arguing about the justification for charges. My argument is that the equally true insight “but he could have” justifies, as a matter of legal and political theory, Lindh’s harsh prosecution and sentencing by the United States in the United States.

I believe Ms. Stampley may be mistaking my point: I’m not saying Lindh should be prosecuted for something he didn’t do. Instead, I’m explaining why the book should be thrown at him for what he did do. (For the charges against Walker, click here.) The “nationality” argument that the New Republic contributor Matthew Hoffman outlines is not itself legal code, it is one common law underpinning of the laws on the books, helping to determine whether they apply. Hoffman claims the “nationality” argument didn’t apply, but focused on ephemeral and reversible “decisions” by Lindh, rather than on the fact that he had not renounced citizenship in a way that a U.S. government official could be aware of.

Exile is nowhere near good enough a deterrent to snakes with U.S. passports who sign on with foreign terrorist organizations. People like Lindh — American sympathizers with valid passports — are potential weapons on the order of a cruise missile for Bin Laden. They should know, as they weigh their choice to join a terrorist organization before surrendering their passport and their U.S. citizenship, that fence-sitting of that sort may still land them in a United States jail for life if they’re caught.

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