Hijacked by the 'Privocrats'

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu Aug 5 15:14:08 PDT 2004


The Wall Street Journal

 August 5, 2004


Hijacked by the 'Privocrats'

August 5, 2004; Page A10

Even as the Bush administration warns of an imminent terror attack, it is
again allowing the "rights" brigades to dictate the parameters of national
defense. The administration just cancelled a passenger screening system
designed to keep terrorists off planes, acceding to the demands of
"privacy" advocates. The implications of this for airline safety are bad
enough. But the program's demise also signals a return to a pre-9/11
mentality, when pressure from the rights lobbies trumped security common

The now-defunct program, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening
System, or Capps II, sought to make sure that air passengers are flying
under their own identity and are not wanted as a terror suspect. It would
have asked passengers to provide four pieces of information -- name,
address, phone number and birth date -- when they make their reservation.
That information would've been run against commercial records, to see if it
matches up, then checked against government intelligence files to determine
whether a passenger has possible terror connections. Depending on the
outcome of those two checks, a passenger could have been screened more
closely at the airport, or perhaps -- if government intelligence on him
raised alarms -- not allowed to board.

Privacy advocates on both the right and the left attacked Capps II from the
moment it was announced. They called it an eruption of a police state, and
envisioned a gallimaufry of bizarre hidden agendas -- from a pretext for
oppressing evangelical Christians and gun owners, to a blank check for
discriminating against blacks.

Contrary to the rights lobby, Capps II was not:
* A privacy intrusion. Passengers already give their name, address and
phone number to make a flight reservation, without the slightest fuss.
Adding birth date hardly changes the privacy ledger: The government and the
private sector have our birth dates on file now for social security and
commercial credit, among numerous other functions. Far from jealously
guarding their name and address, Americans dispense personal information
about themselves with abandon, in order to enjoy a multitude of consumer
conveniences. (Anyone with a computer can find out reams more about us than
is even hinted at in the Capps II passenger records.)
* A surveillance system. Neither the government nor the airlines would have
kept any of the information beyond the safe completion of a flight. The
government would have had no access to the commercial records used to check
a passenger's alleged identity; those would have remained with the
commercial data providers contracted to provide identity verification.
* A data mining program. This misunderstood technology seeks to use
computers to spot suspicious patterns or anomalies in large data bases,
sometimes for predictive analysis. Capps II had nothing to do with data
mining; it was simply a primitive two-step data query system.

The advocates' most effective strategy for killing off Capps II was to
bludgeon airlines into not cooperating with its development. Northwest
Airlines and Jet Blue were already facing billions of dollars in lawsuits
for specious "privacy" violations, trumped up by the advocates in reprisal
for those airlines' earlier cooperation with the war on terror. No other
airline was willing to take on a similar risk and provide passenger data to
stress-test Capps II. Without the capacity to be tested, Capps II was

The Department of Homeland Security has already shown itself a weakling in
bureaucratic turf battles; its capitulation to the "privocrats" means it is
all but toothless. It was just such a cave-in by the Clinton administration
that eased the way for the 9/11 attacks. Under pressure from the Arab and
rights lobbies, the Clintonites agreed in 1997 that passengers flagged as
suspicious by the then-existing flight screening system would not be
interviewed. Allowing security personnel to interview suspicious flyers, it
was argued, would amount to racial and ethnic profiling. On 9/11, the
predecessor to Capps II identified nine of the 19 hijackers as potentially
dangerous, including all five terrorists aboard American Airlines Flight
77. But pursuant to the rights-dictated rules, the only consequence of that
identification was that the hijackers' checked luggage was screened for
hidden explosives. Had the killers themselves been interviewed, there is a
significant chance that their plot would've been uncovered.

Since the demise of Capps II, the privocrats have tipped their hand: Their
real agenda isn't privacy, but a crippling of all security measures.
Leading advocate Edward Hasbrouck has decried both a voluntary "registered
traveler" option, in which passengers agree to a background check in order
to circumvent some security measures, and physical screening at the gate.
Bottom line: Any security precautions prior to flight constitute a civil
liberties violation. It is mystifying why the government should pay heed to
people who so disregard the public good.

It is difficult to know where we go from here. There is no way to keep a
terrorist from flying without first trying to determine who he is. Yet the
most innocuous identity verification system prior to a flight is now seen
as tantamount to illegal surveillance. With the rights advocates back in
the saddle of national security, al Qaeda can blithely get on with its

Ms. Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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