The Northwest Flight 253 bombing attempt has once again reignited the debate over using profiling as a security technique. Many have pointed out over the years that ethnic profiling could have stopped the attacks of September 11. And it probably could have. But profiling alone is not the solution.
For any kind of profiling to work, you have to put aside political correctness and pay attention. Profiling is an important tool, but one that has to be used within the context of a solid intelligence and counter-terrorism strategy. Israel's El Al is not terrorist free simply because Israel profiles Arab terrorists. It has the track record that it does because the profiling is done by personnel who are trained by a security establishment intimately familiar with Islamic terrorism.
The difference between bad profiling and good profiling is the competence of the personnel doing the profiling. A bad cop stops all black men after a crime in which the suspect was described as African-American. A good cop looks not simply at race but at clothes, body language, walk and also his mental database of potential suspects he's familiar with from previous run-ins. Anyone can do the former, but it takes training and an intimate familiarity with the side of the street you're working to do the latter. More importantly it takes good intelligence. Because your profiling is only going to be as good as your database.
Outside of spy movies, the US has never been very good at intelligence. President Woodrow Wilson rejected the idea, arguing that gentlemen don't read each other's mail. Which explains handily how the Lusitania was sunk, the Black Tom explosion that took out two million pounds of ammunition and damaged the Statue of Liberty, the German germ warfare plot against the US could all take place on his watch during WW1.
Things never really got much better since then. WW2's OSS was America's best group of foreign operatives, and they were cowboys, ragged and undisciplined, going off on their own tangents, and producing hit and miss results. Meanwhile for all the mythology of the CIA, the organization is basically the State Department with a more menacing air. And the State Department is 90 percent of what's wrong with American foreign policy.
After 9/11, consolidation and intel sharing were supposed to be the order of the day. Instead of ending the chaos, we instead immortalized it. In the last decade, the ability of US intelligence services to distinguish between good intel and bad intel, to actually know when a threat was coming and counter it, have not been very good. The FBI has been moderately decent at breaking up a few cells in the early stages of an operation, and entrapping one or two others, but they've been hamstrung by White Houses and US Attorneys with an open door policy toward Islamist groups. The CIA has been as useful or useless as it was during the Cold War.
Having a solid intelligence agency means an agency that doesn't use Muslims or people with dubious backgrounds as translators. It doesn't use analysts who are more sympathetic to the terrorists than they are to the US. It doesn't use station chiefs who work for foreign governments or go native and adopt the viewpoint of the enemy. It means an agency that isn't held hostage to its own political culture and is actually capable of gathering solid intelligence, instead of repeating embassy cocktail party chatter and including that in intelligence briefings. Until that happens our ability to do smart profiling will be very limited, because it's hard to be smart without useful intelligence.
And smart profiling means being aware of your own blind spots before the terrorists spot them first. In Israel for example, security personnel can tell apart Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries, from actual Arabs, but suicide bombers have dressed up as Orthodox Jews, because Israel's security personnel tend to be secular and therefore less familiar with Orthodox Jews. And in the Mumbai attacks, a Jewish couple from New York could not be expected to tell apart a Pakistani Muslim terrorist from Indian Beta Israel. Just as airport personnel genuinely familiar with Africa would not have mistaken Umar for a Sudanese refugee. These kind of blind spots always exist, which is why familiarity with potential attackers and intelligence is key when it comes to smart profiling.
Nevertheless even dumb profiling is valuable. It can help screen out a terrorist at a crucial moment. Most terrorists after all do fit the profile. The 9/11 and 7/7 attacks might have been prevented through dumb profiling alone. Which means dumb profiling is still a good deal better than nothing at all.
But like any defensive tool, the value of profiling is being eroded by the gains being made by the enemy. As Islamism expands beyond its base in the Middle East, and even beyond Asia, it becomes less dependent on terrorists who can be so easily profiled. For the moment the vast majority of Islamic terrorists are still middle eastern men, but they are increasingly drawing converts who are Scotch-Irish, Latino, Jewish and Chinese. And while they don't have enough right now that they could carry out another 9/11 without relying on Middle Eastern men. It might only take another decade before they could.
Europe in particular is generating a large number of converts to Islam, as are African-Americans and Latinos. These converts are often a good deal more radicalized than even born Muslims, and more violent. This will allow the Middle Eastern and Asian Islamic terrorist groups to carry out their attacks using people who look and sound like Americans, Canadians or Brits or Aussies. And the longer we remain on the defensive and tolerate Islamist buildups within our borders, the more of our own people will become recruited into the Jihadist network.
Ethnic profiling therefore comes with a built in expiration date. The longer we allow Islamists to use our countries as a base, the sooner ethnic profiling will cease to be a useful tool. The coming threat is not from Yemeni, Saudi and Pakistani men, but from their American, English and Canadian pupils. Ethnic profiling worked when there was an ocean between us and Islam, but now Islam is here and is working to embed the next generation of its insurgency into our children.