A key but neglected piece of news coming out of the 9/11 commission hearings took place during an exchange on April 8 between John Lehman, a commissioner, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
LEHMAN: Were you aware that it was the policy of the Justice Department - and I'd like you to comment as to whether these continuities are still in place - before I go to Justice, were you aware that it was the policy and I believe remains the policy today to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that's discriminatory?
RICE: No, I have to say that the kind of inside arrangements for the FAA are not really in my...
LEHMAN: Well, these are not so inside.
Michael Smerconish of the Philadelphia Daily News followed up some days later, asking Lehman for more details, which Lehman provided:
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. 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.
Lehman went on to blame this on the 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.
Smerconish confirmed this with Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, who said the policy began during the Clinton administration, when the Justice Department said it was "concerned about equality of treatment with respect to screening."
The random element was put in...where you just choose people at random as opposed to picking them out for some particular reason, and that of course caused a great many more people to be screened.
"So we don't offend?" Smerconish asked. "That was the root of it, yes," Kelleher replied.
Comment: I looked at the public regulations for airline security procedures back in January 2002 and found them a recipe for disaster. Now we learn that the confidential regulations are yet worse. If we don't get serious now about security, we will pay severely – and then we'll get serious, after who-knows-how-many are dead. (April 15, 2004)
April 19, 2004 update: Smerconish remains on the case and broke more news in his column today. He recounts how, on April 13,
I happened to see Sen. Arlen Specter at the Phillies home opener. I told him what Lehman had told me. He was incredulous, but promised to look into it. The very next day, he reported that his staff had checked with the Department of Transportation and was told that what Lehman said was untrue.
Following this, Smerconish talked with Kelleher, as reported above. On telling Specter what Kelleher said, Specter
then called Lehman who confirmed for him what Lehman had initially told me. Now, Specter is promising to use his No. 2 position in Judiciary to get answers. Today, I am to speak with Sen. John McCain, the man responsible for putting Lehman on the commission, and I intend to ask him what he knows about this.
Smerconish points out that "this story has legs"; let's hope he's right.
April 29, 2004 update: More from Michael Smerconish on this matter. He found two statements given by airline executives to the 9/11 Commission on Jan. 27, 2004, that back up the Lehman and Kelleher comments. A security expert for United Airlines, Edmond Soliday, testified about "a visitor from the Justice Department who told me that if I had more than three people of the same ethnic origin in line for additional screening, our system would be shut down as discriminatory." In addition, the CEO of American Airlines, Gerard Arpey, testified that when the crew was uncomfortable with passengers on their plane and asked that they be removed, the Department of the Transportation sued the airline. Smerconish is trying to get the policy straight from the DoT but running into resistance and writes that he's starting to think "cover-up."
June 22, 2004 update: In case anyone thinks these fines are an abstraction, Delta Air Lines agreed today, as Bloomberg News delicately puts it, "to spend $900,000 to train staff in post-9/11 courtesies to its passengers." Delta, which "strenuously denies" it violated federal law, must spend the money within two years for training of pilots, flight attendants and customer service agents.This follows on other recent settlements with American Airlines and United Airlines for $1.5 million each and with Continental Airlines Inc. for $500,000.
April 24, 2005 update: When Tim Nelson, a flight school staffer whose suspicions helped lead to the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, told his worries in August 2001 to officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, they responded, "What did [Moussaoui] do that's illegal?" And then this: "We're the tombstone agency. We don't do anything until there's a tombstone." Those eight words recapitulate the same problem.
April 27, 2005 update: DHS inspectors confirmed that Mohamed Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was indeed on a prior flight to that attack with actor James Woods, who reported to the pilot he believed a hijacking was about to take place. Until now, law enforcement has not substantiated Woods account.
Dec. 1, 2005 update: Basic changes in U.S. airport security are underway on Dec. 22 but, as usual, they deal with things rather than people. Small scissors, for example, will now be allowed on planes and body searches will expand from the upper torso to "upper and lower torso, the entire arm and legs from the mid-thigh down to the ankle and the back and abdomen." As for the passengers themselves, a certain number of them will be pulled aside and subjected to an added search. They will be selected randomly, without regard to ethnicity or nationality, much less any concern about what their world view is.
Dec. 29, 2005 update: Security screeners at Detroit's Metro Airport began a test program on Dec. 22 engaging travelers in conversation and watching for behavior patterns to discern terrorists and other criminals. Travelers who appear stressed, scared, or deceptive are subjected to additional screening. The Transportation Security Administration agents also are trained to detect "involuntary physical and psychological reactions," says Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman. After some days in use at select airports around the United States, Uselding added, arrests have been made on charges of drug-trafficking and using fraudulent immigration documents. Imad Hamad, Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, immediately jumped on the procedure. "We all need to stay on alert, but without reaching a point where we judge people on appearance. We need to be smarter than that."