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A Sure-Fire Legal Recipe for Airport Insecurity

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last August, Nicholas George, 22, was getting ready to fly from Pennsylvania to Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., when TSA agents found Arabic-English flash cards in his pocket -- the 200 cards included such words as "bomb" and "explosive" -- two stereo speakers in his carry-on bag, a Jordanian student ID card and a passport that showed he had visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sudan. TSA agents detained George for questioning. They determined he was not a security threat and released him less than five hours later. Now, he is suing.

Of course the ACLU is representing George. The group explained in a press release that episodes like George's "may actually make us less safe, by diverting vital resources and attention away from true security threats."

Nonsense. If ever there was a person you want the TSA to look at very carefully, it's a young male who has Arabic flashcards with words like "bomb" in his pocket, studied in Jordan and recently spent time in Sudan, a country that the State Department believes to sponsor terrorism. Add the fact that George had stereo speakers -- remember an explosive-laden tape recorder was used to bring down Pam Am Flight 103 in 1988 -- in his carry-on luggage, and it would amount to professional malpractice if TSA and FBI agents did not search and question George.

When I first read this story, I had to wonder if, in a world with no shortage of individuals hungry to be victims or discredit the system, the young man was trying to be detained.

ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper assured me that George is not the type of person who would try to start trouble. If he had wanted to get the TSA's attention, she said, "There are far more provocative things he could have done than having flashcards in his pocket."

Fair enough, but surely the ACLU understands why the TSA would want to question and search George. Her answer: Not really. Roper thinks the TSA was right to search his speakers, but because they contained no explosives, airport security should have let him on the plane.

"Learning the Arabic language and traveling to the Middle East as a college student, I don't think that's a suspicious circumstance," Roper explained.

You know, I'm one of those people who has no patience for people who complain every time a white grandmother undergoes a TSA search, because profiling doesn't always work.

But that doesn't mean TSA agents are supposed to wear blinders. George's passport alone -- which he did not have to show to board a domestic flight -- should warrant extra scrutiny. Without the "bomb" flashcard.

Roper maintains that after the initial questioning, TSA agents should have understood George was an American student with a Middle Eastern Studies major -- and promptly let him catch his plane. Instead, TSA and Philadelphia police detained and questioned George -- who, according to the TSA, had been flagged because he exhibited fear reflexes -- until the FBI questioned him.

(As an aside: The ACLU complaint claims that authorities never Mirandized George during the nearly five hours he was held. That would mean that authorities were faster to Mirandize accused Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab than George. That means authorities questioned George longer than Abdulmutallab without Mirandizing him.)

According to the complaint, a TSA supervisor questioned George "in a hostile and aggressive manner," while he was "polite and calm." Also, FBI agents questioned George to see if he was involved with any "pro-Islamic groups," then determined George was not a threat. However, the complaint alleges that FBI questions were "wide-ranging and strayed far from any conceivable criminal activity."

Boo-hoo. "Nick is not claiming to have been scarred for life. No one is trying to get rich off this," Roper told me. And: "What this is about is accountability."

You see, if learning Arabic or traveling to the Middle East is enough to get you handcuffed and questioned by the FBI, then -- Roper said this -- "the terrorists have won."

Au contraire; if TSA staff, airport cops and FBI agents -- the defendants in this lawsuit -- are afraid to do their jobs, then terrorists will win.

Look no further than Fort Hood, Texas. Colleagues were afraid to report the radicalized rants of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, lest they seem anti-Islamic, so they looked the other way. The toll: 13 dead.

Now, I won't say that the Philly security team did everything right. If George's claim of remaining handcuffed for two hours is true, that is excessive. But if the student truly wants accountability, he can complain through the proper channels about abusive treatment. If his goal, however, is to cow airport security folks so that they'll be afraid to question some kid with an "I h Jihad" t-shirt and a boarding pass, then this lawsuit is the perfect venue.

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See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

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