Why nuns are not a terrorist threat

By Ross Clark (THE TIMES, 01/06/06):

Here is the latest news from the European Court of Justice. The Passenger Name Records agreement has been ruled illegal. And I can see why.

PNR is the practice by which airlines flying to the US hand over to the US Department of Homeland Security 34 pieces of personal data on each passenger, including addresses, home telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, credit card details and even whether the passenger ordered a vegetarian meal. I suspect that some of those Euro MPs who took the case to the European Court are really motivated by a desire to score a point against a country which they dislike.

This said, the heavy-handed security measures employed by the Department of Homeland Security are hardly endearing either. While most sane people would accept that the threat of terrorism justifies the monitoring of citizens by security services, does this really justify US government officials in the routine and indiscriminate collection of our e-mail addresses and credit card details? Of course there is a small chance that Bob and Doris from Nuneaton are really al-Qaeda sympathisers who will break off their holiday in Miami to raise money for terrorism. Then again the US authorities collecting the data are the same authorities that for years knew full well the identities of those collecting money for the IRA, and yet failed to do anything about them.

The obsessive gathering of information does not aid criminal investigation; it hinders it. Remember the Soham murders of four years ago? The police launched a nationwide appeal for information and were duly overwhelmed with calls reporting sightings of shifty-looking individuals, and Holly and Jessica lookalikes, from many miles away. All it seemed to achieve was to distract the police from what seemed obvious to many of the reporters covering the case: that the real culprit, the school caretaker Ian Huntley, was in front of their noses.

National security is really no different: try to monitor the itineraries of millions of ordinary travellers and you will waste many thousands of man-hours investigating people with minor irregularities, such as students whose addresses quite often do not match up with the billing addresses of their credit cards, while distracting attention from the individuals who really do pose a threat to the country.

The indiscriminate nature of many security measures — particularly in the US, though not solely so — owes something to political correctness. Some who have travelled regularly to the US since 9/11 report a familiar sight: of elderly nuns being stopped at customs while young Middle Eastern men sail through, thanks to officers fearful of being accused of picking on a particular racial group. By collecting the fingerprints and iris images of every traveller to the US, a time-consuming process which is soon to be extended to all ten digits, not just index fingers, US customs officials can certainly avoid charges of discrimination, on the grounds of race, religion or anything else. But ought that really to be the overriding objective of anti-terrorism measures, even when the main threat comes from a group that defines itself by its religion? However, the chief reason why getting into and out of America has become so tiresome since 9/11 is down to a desire by officials to be seen to be doing something. US security services came in for a hammering when it was revealed that they had been warned by a flying school about a suspect trainee pilot who showed a disinclination to learn how to take off and land. It was human nature that government officials — and airlines — would seek to busy themselves by introducing rafts of security measures, even if some of them were bizarre from the outset. Airlines began by confiscating nailfiles — a security measure later dropped after it was pointed out that a far more potent weapon existed in the form of bottles from duty-free.

After 9/11, US homeland defence swung from one extreme to the other: from a situation where airliners were treated like buses, where passengers could hop on and off with minimal checks, to one in which suddenly everyone was treated as a terrorist suspect. Few would disagree with the numerous scanners now employed at airports. But what about the petty rules over visa applications? The Hallé Orchestra recently cancelled a tour to America after being told that all 120 members would have to report in person to the American Embassy in London, at an allotted time early one morning, and pay £63 for the privilege. No, said embassy officials regretfully, it would not be possible for one member of the orchestra to visit in person, presenting everyone’s passport. Given that the orchestra is based in Manchester, this would have meant hiring two coaches and finding overnight accommodation for all 120 players. Bewildered by the rules, the orchestra cancelled the American visit.

I wouldn’t want to join Euro MPs in bashing America for the hell of it. British officials can be every bit as boneheaded when it comes to devising pettifogging rules over passports and visas. But there is one image that sticks in my mind when I hear the US Department of Homeland Security defending the collection of mountains of travellers’ personal data: it is the photograph, widely published over the past fortnight, of a thin immigrant squeezing between the rusty iron girders, crudely hammered into the beach, dividing the US from Mexico. The image cried out for a more intelligent approach to illegal immigration. So, too, the practice of collecting passenger records demands a better-targeted response to the terrorist threat.