Commentary

Welcome, Unless You’re a Muslim

By Charles V. Peña
This article was published in the Daily Star, January 20, 2004.

Thanks to the new US-VISIT (Visa and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program, foreign visitors will now be welcomed to the United States by being fingerprinted and photographed. At its unveiling at Hatfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at the beginning of January, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge proclaimed that US-VISIT was “part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors but closed to terrorists.” It’s not clear, however, that reality matches the director’s rhetoric.

To start, US-VISIT exempts visitors from 28 countries. This is a gaping loophole that you can literally fly an airplane through. Britain is one of the exempt countries. But the fact that several British Airways flights to the United States were canceled during the recent end-of-year holidays was an indication that Al-Qaeda operatives could be UK-based. Thus, they could enter the US unchecked.

France is also on the exempt list, though it is a country with some 5 million Muslims. While a majority of French Muslims are law-abiding and peaceful, prudence dictates that we assume Al-Qaeda operatives may try to assimilate with the French Muslim population to evade detection. We must also assume that Al-Qaeda may attempt to recruit sympathizers from among Muslims living in France. Thus, again, US-VISIT opens the door to potential terrorists from France. Finally, Germany is another country exempted by US-VISIT. Yet recall that Hamburg was the home of an Al-Qaeda cell alleged to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. So does it make sense to exclude Germans from security scrutiny?

There is also the question of whether the US-VISIT program ­ even if it is applied across-the-board to all foreigners ­ will work as advertised. Its purpose is to confirm the identities of foreign visitors to make sure that they’re not would-be terrorists. One would assume that means comparing people’s names to a database of known and suspected Al-Qaeda operatives, as well as of persons with suspected ties to the organization. Think again. According to Ridge: “While processing more than 20,000 travelers … US-VISIT has matched 21 hits on the FBI criminal watch list, including potential entrants with previous convictions for statutory rape, dangerous drugs, aggravated felonies and several cases of visa fraud.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, simple math shows that US-VISIT casts a wide net to catch a few ­ about a tenth of a percent of total passengers ­ but even this number is largely meaningless. That’s because the program is linked to a criminal database, not a terrorist database. So the few people snared are exactly those who you would expect to catch: criminals, not terrorists. Indeed, how many terrorists’ fingerprints does the FBI have in its criminal watch list? It’s probably a good guess that Osama bin Laden and other top Al-Qaeda operatives are not included.

Another potentially troubling aspect of the US-VISIT program is that foreign visitors will be cataloged in a database. Why would people who do not represent a terrorist threat to the United States (presumably, they would not be allowed into the country if they did) need to have their fingerprints and photographs stored in a government database? It makes no sense to maintain a database of people who are presumably innocent.

The issue of the US-VISIT database is important because of the government’s plans to push ahead with the CAPPS 2 (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening) program for airport security. Legitimate privacy concerns aside, the good news is that CAPPS 2 is supposed to compare passengers’ names against databases for suspected terrorists and wanted criminals. Checking for suspected terrorists rather than garden-variety criminals is an improvement over US-VISIT and begs the question of why US-VISIT isn’t set up to do the same thing.

But like US-VISIT, CAPPS 2 presents an exploitable loophole: It allows trusted or registered travelers who voluntarily submit to a background check to subsequently be subject to less security screening. Therefore, becoming a trusted traveler would be a way for potential terrorists to reduce ­ but not eliminate ­ security screening at airports in an effort to hijack airplanes. Indeed, the Transportation Security Agency had previously rejected such a program due to concerns that terrorists in sleeper cells might establish themselves as trusted travelers.

A potentially bigger concern than the trusted traveler loophole, however, is how the US-VISIT database might be used in conjunction with CAPPS 2. Would the CAPPS 2 system compare travelers’ names against the names kept in the US-VISIT database? If so, why? And how would that affect the color code each passenger is assigned ­ “red” prohibiting a passenger from boarding a plane, “yellow” requiring additional scrutiny at a checkpoint and “green” allowing for a routine security screening.

Ultimately, the larger problem with US-VISIT and CAPPS 2 is the proverbial law of unintended consequences. By definition, Al-Qaeda, comprised of radical Islamic terrorists, is the legitimate focus of American counter-terrorism and homeland security efforts. Ergo, being Muslim is a legitimate criterion likely to be used by US-VISIT and CAPPS 2 to screen for potential terrorists. But it cannot be the only one. The question is whether the operational procedures of the two systems will be interpreted by Muslims in general to mean that they are the real targets. Certainly, it will be obvious to Muslims who is being picked out and who isn’t.

To be sure, the United States must be concerned with potential terrorists emanating from the Muslim world. But if the perception were that Muslim countries and their citizens are being indiscriminately singled out, it would only reinforce the notion that the entire Muslim world ­ not just Al-Qaeda ­ is the object of the US war on terrorism.

The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has allowed bin Laden to claim the West is invading the Muslim world. US-VISIT and CAPPS 2 could lend credence to the accusation that the US is waging a war against all Muslims. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether such claims are true. What does is whether American actions cause moderate Muslims to sympathize with Al-Qaeda’s accusations against the US. Such sympathy becomes the basis for Muslims’ ultimately feeling as if they have no other option than to accept the radicals’ case that America is seeking to extinguish Islam.

While it’s easy to dismiss such a possibility as farfetched, ignorance is not bliss. An under-appreciated reality is that the US cannot win the war on terrorism in the traditional sense. Why? Because the real struggle is within Islam ­ between the radicals represented by bin Laden and a majority of Muslims who have reconciled their religious and cultural views with the West and the modern world. The latter must defeat the former.

But if America cannot win, it can certainly contribute to losing the war if programs such as US-VISIT and CAPPS 2 only provide “feel good” security, and have the effect of humiliating and alienating Muslims visiting America. Instead of welcoming Muslims and engendering an affinity for the United States, the perverse result could be rolling out a welcome mat for Al-Qaeda recruiting.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.