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Feds To Adopt Air Passenger Profiles But Critics Aren’t Convinced Plan To Screen Terrorists Won’t Promote Bias

The Justice Department is expected today to approve a controversial computerized profiling system aimed at weeding out terrorists from airline passengers.

The department’s review of the system was intended to make sure that it does not violate federal law by discriminating against minorities. But civil rights and Arab-American organizations still express concern that people will be scrutinized unfairly because of how they look or their ethnic background.

Northwest Airlines is testing the computerized profiles at more than a dozen airports. The Justice Department’s report is the first step in expanding the system to other major airlines by the end of the year, as planned. The Federal Aviation Administration is overseeing the screening, which the airline industry supports.

“This will give us the green light to go ahead with the system but will require a couple of steps to be taken in order for that light to stay green,” said a government official, declining to specify the steps.

But critics of the computerized profiles said they will monitor the system closely and perhaps bring a lawsuit.

“We knew that the Justice Department will say, ‘Yes, it is constitutional,’ but a lot of things have been pronounced constitutional that when challenged in courts have been undone,” said Hala Maksoud, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“We will have to see how it affects our community and try to see if there is a pattern of discrimination. No one even knows what the system is all about. It is top secret, which makes it doubtful.”

The FAA and the airlines are tight-lipped about the new system, known as Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening, or CAPS.

“We can say it doesn’t include factors like race, ethnicity, national origin or any of those things that would be discriminatory,” said Rebecca Trexler, an FAA spokeswoman. “We can’t say what the criteria are in the system. That would be telling the terrorists what we are looking for.”

Other officials said the profiles could include a passenger’s destination, travel companions, car rental plans and paying by cash.

Greg T. Nojeim, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that civil rights organizations wanted an independent panel to monitor the profiling system to make sure it doesn’t pick out people based on race.

“To ask the Department of Justice, which helped create the profiling system in the first place, to sign off on the system they helped create is like asking the fox whether the henhouse needs a guard,” he said.