Profiles in Secrecy


Josh Mangum was checking in for his boarding pass at the gate in San Francisco airport in August. He had purchased his ticket over the Net. Mangum, a computer programmer recently graduated from Stanford, is dark-complexioned and hadn't shaved that day. He looked, by his own self-description, "like a picture of a terrorist."

The gate attendant called up Mangum's information. He then told Mangum that he must have his carry-on bag hand-searched by an agent (he'd already gone through the typical X-ray machine) before he could get his boarding pass. Mangum reluctantly agreed. He was handed a form letter absolving the airline, Southwest, of any responsibility for this search. The letter said he should direct questions to a regional Federal Aviation Administration administrator.

Airlines and the FAA are known to use each other as cover for their own actions, as in the recent policy of requiring picture ID to board a plane. The FAA says Mangum was likely a victim of a security technique known as "profiling," which singles out certain types of people, for certain reasons, for special treatment. What types? What reasons? The FAA won't say.

"I can't talk about exactly what the criteria are since it tells terrorists and criminals what we're looking for and might help them elude the system," FAA spokesperson Rebecca Trexler says. To assuage any shame people like Mangum might feel, she added: "Selection doesn't mean you are a terrorist. It just means we don't know enough about you. We target time-consuming search procedures with intelligence."

What sort of intelligence? "It doesn't involve race, religion, national origin, or ethnicity and has nothing to do with the way they look," Trexler assured me.

This almost makes profiling sound completely random, but Trexler wouldn't say that either, since that would make it sound unintelligent–a random system couldn't be presumed to effectively isolate baddies. She also referred to a recent Department of Justice civil rights investigation that absolved the FAA of the sin of concentrating on verboten, civil-rights-sensitive features.

Indeed, on October 1, DOJ issued a press release confirming that it had done a study proving the FAA did not "give any consideration to the race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or gender of airline passengers." Wanting to see the details behind the press release's sweeping assurance, I asked for a copy of the full report. Sorry, DOJ spokesman John Russell said. That report is not a public document.