September 10, 2003 | Broadcast

Money & Markets

Federal officials continue to grapple with the best ways to make the U.S. safer from further attacks, including the threat from air. But a new computer system that assigns color codes to passengers according to their perceived threat level has many fearing that government has simply gone too far.

Joining us now to talk about the issue, Richard Carlson, vice chairman at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and David Sobel, he’s general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, both of whom come to us today from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the program.



HAFFENREFFER: It sounds like this new program, which I believe they’re calling CAPS 2, is a program that will in the end prevent terrorists from getting on airplanes, David Sobel?

SOBEL: Well, that’s what the Transportation Security Administration would have us believe, but there’s really no indication, no reason to believe that a system like the one that they’re designing could be effective at all in accomplishing that.

I think, you know, we really run the risk of putting in place something that’s going to give us a false sense of security if travelers believe that there really is an effective system in place when in fact there isn’t. There is no indication that this system would work.

There’s not even any indication that this system would have been effective at all on September 11th two years ago. So I think that’s fundamentally the question that TSA has to answer, and thus far they haven’t really adequately answered the effectiveness question.

HAFFENREFFER: And what they’re doing here is assigning a color, green, yellow, or red, to every individual passenger, and your particular color code can be affected by the people that you are traveling with as well.

Richard Carlson, where are they coming up with the information needed to assign the color?

CARLSON: Well, let me say first off, that I disagree with Mr. Sobel. I think that the proposed computer system, called CAPS 2, is potentially quite effective. It certainly isn’t going to do everything to prevent terrorism aboard airplanes, but it’s going to move that much further towards protecting the civil liberties of people to both live and to fly without being blown up in the air, or being driven into the Pentagon as happened in 1991..

I disagree with him about what might have happened two years ago tomorrow if, for instance, flight No. 77, American Airlines from Dulles Airport had been color coded when it took its passengers on board. I had a good friend on that airplane. It very likely that it would not have happened.  This program protects two very basic liberties, the right to breathe, and the right to stay alive.

HAFFENREFFER: David Sobel, I quickly want to let you respond to that.

SOBEL: Well, it’s easy to say it wouldn’t have happened. But one thing we do know is that months after the attacks two of the hijackers actually had their visas renewed. So that’s the state of information that was available to the government on
September 11th, 2001, and even thereafter. So I think it’s very easy to say oh, of course, this would have provided security on September 11th, but there’s no demonstrable reason to believe that that’s true.

CARLSON: Well, actually, there are quite a few reasons —


SOBEL: It’s wishful thinking on the part of TSA.

CARLSON: Not wishful thinking at all. It may not have prevented it — I don’t know — but the facts support the idea that it might have gone a long way towards preventing it.

I think it’s niggling and nitpicking of so-called defenders of civil liberties, and I’m not attacking Mr. Sobel personally, to be spending time doing this. This is small potatoes in a large potato field. I think it will appeal to anybody who has stood in line and has had their six-year-old grandchild searched, or their 80-year-old grandmother; this is going to make it a lot easier for people to fly. It’s not intrusive, it’s protective. I think it’s a positive thing for America.

HAFFENREFFER: We’ll take some e-mails and phone calls here. I’ll take the first e-mail because you mentioned the 80-year-old grandmother. We have an e-mail from a 75-year-old grandmother who writes in the memo line “Outraged Granny”.

She says, “I’m a 75-year-old grandmother that was recently strip searched by the TSA and I only wish that groups like the ACLU would back off people like me and focus instead on people of Arab descent between the ages of 18 and 35, since that seems to be the profile of 95 percent of the terrorists that have attacked U.S. interests in the last 20 years.”

She goes on to say, “It would have saved a lot of time and heartache, and I think that they would understand since it is for their protection, too.”

The idea of racial profiling, David, would it be appropriate in this case or no?

SOBEL: Well, I don’t even think we need to get into that debate because the fact is TSA is not indicating that those are going to be factors used in this system. In other words, ethnicity, age, race, those are things that TSA does not say they’re going to be looking at.

So in fact, you know, for all the sympathy that we understandably can have for people like the elderly, people that we hear about getting strip searched, there’s no reason to believe that this new system is going to improve that situation at all.

In fact, it very well could make it worse because you’re going to have glitches in this computer system, you’re going to have bad information in this computer system, and once the system says you’re a risk there’s no way that you can go to TSA to seek corrections. TSA’s answer is going to be we’re sorry, we can’t tell you what information we’re looking at, we can’t tell you why we’ve assessed you as a risk.

So I think the problems we’ve already seen at the airports are just an early indication of the much more widespread problems we’ll have when this computerized information-based system goes into place.

HAFFENREFFER: To the phones. This one from Hubert in
Maryland with a question.

Hi, Hubert.


HAFFENREFFER: What’s your question or comment?

CALLER: My comment is that I feel so strongly about this and I’m for it. I would be willing to pay for my profile check for background to lessen the travel hassle on my wife and myself. I’m 84. My wife is 82. And we still like to travel. Neither of us have had as much as a traffic ticket in our time.

Wouldn’t it make the airport security process more efficient? I say it would. You don’t look for palm trees in Alaska. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

HAFFENREFFER: Thank you for the call.

And Richard, obviously, some people with nothing to hide obviously are going to feel rather strong about just go ahead, take a look at whatever you want, and just let me on that plane.

CARLSON: That’s most Americans, even those people who might have something to hide. Listen, I’m not a supporter of big government. I’m not a supporter of big business. I don’t like intrusions on people’s privacy.

But I think anything within reason that makes it easier for people like that gentleman and his wife — or anyone else for that matter, to fly is a good thing.  This is color-coded but it is color blind, and simply looks at information, for instance, about what you might have purchased in stores in the past for evaluation. They’re not interested in whether you spent money at Starbucks. They’re interested in whether you bought potassium nitrite by the ton.

Those things safeguard most Americans, and I think that’s very important..

HAFFENREFFER: Another day phone call now, this one from James in

Hi, James.

CALLER: How you doing?

HAFFENREFFER: Good. What’s your question or comment?

CALLER: I’d just like to say that I believe that the government and the airlines should do whatever they think is necessary to make safety on the airlines a thing that works, even — especially push for profiling because they have a pretty good idea of what kind of nationality that they’re looking for and everyone on the plane should be entitled to safety.

HAFFENREFFER: David, as you listen to calls like this and you say they’re not bringing in ethnicity into the factoring for these color-coding labels that they’re going to give to people, why not, do you think?

SOBEL: Well, I think you’d have to ask people at TSA and within the administration about that. I think that’s been a controversy within the administration. But the fact of the matter is that the proposed passenger profiling system will not take those factors into account.

Now, you know, I want to address this question of whether this is good security or not. Nobody disputes the need for good security. We all fly. But people need to understand that at the same time that TSA is putting a lot of resources and a lot of reliance on this system they’re also talking about cutting back on the number of sky marshals that are going to be on flights.

Now, I think most people who look at this objectively would tell you that an untested computer profiling system is much less likely to be effective than armed sky marshals on flights, and the TSA seems to want to de- emphasize the sky marshals while putting all of its eggs in this untested computer system.

So you know, it’s not a question of some of us not wanting security. The debate is really what is going to give us the best security and what will provide a false sense of security. And I think the CAPS system is a false sense of security.

HAFFENREFFER: All right. We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, more of this discussion. Please stay with us.


HAFFENREFFER: All right. Back now with our guests to talk about this idea of color coding those who travel by air in the airport to sort of gauge their threat level to the airplane and the traffic system in general is David Sobel, from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, as well as Richard Carlson, who’s vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Just got an e-mail from a viewer in Colorado, Michael, who says, “Why don’t we just put a patch that says Jew or Arab on their lapels like Hitler did in Nazi Germany? I am against this.” Again, signed Michael in Colorado.

David, as you’ve been discussing this, since this news came out a couple of days ago, mostly are people thinking this is just — this is not the best way to approach the subject?

SOBEL: Well, I think there’s been a lot of skepticism. And actually, the plans for CAPS 2 have been on the drawing board for about a year and a half. So some of us have had an opportunity really to look at the details and question the underlying rationale.

And I think those of us who have done that for the last year and a half have come to the conclusion that there’s no reason to believe that this can be effective. What TSA says they’re looking for are known terrorists or associates of known terrorists.

Well, if the government knows who the terrorists are, why would they be waiting for them to show up at an airport? I think the problem is that we don’t know who the terrorists are. So to lead the public to believe that there’s some magic bullet technology system that is going to find the terrorists really does everyone a disservice. And I think the people who have looked at this closely have come to that conclusion.

HAFFENREFFER: OK. We’re going to take another phone call now from Bob in
California with a question.

Hi, Bob.

CALLER: Gentlemen, thank you for take my call. How is everybody?


CALLER: Good. I guess my question and comment is I’ve been a policeman for about 23 years now and I think the color coding is a good idea. Let’s not fool ourselves about who the terrorists are here. It wasn’t the Japanese or the Germans or the French that did this. It’s Middle Easterners who did this, who hate us, who target us for terrorism.

So let’s get on the ball and stop wasting time here and do something to save our citizens from becoming the next victims of terrorism. So I’m all for it.

And if the criticizers have a better idea of how to do things, then let them come forth and have a better idea. But if you don’t have a better solution, then don’t complain.

HAFFENREFFER: Again, thanks for the call, Bob. And Richard, again, down to this is racial profiling we’re talking about here.

CARLSON: Well, I think the comment from the viewer who said either Jews or Arabs would have patches was ridiculous. This is completely inclusive, actually. It’s highly democratic. It doesn’t isolate Jews. It doesn’t isolate Arabs. Nor should it do those things. It in fact protects all Americans.

Mr. Sobel made the statement that everyone who’s looked at this program thinks that it’s not going to work. Well, of course, that’s not true. Mr. Sobel’s friends, who are people associated with the ACLU, ironically, have been against more sky marshals, so the idea of comparing CAPS 2 and Sky marshalls and then complaining because we could put resources with more sky marshals, that does seem disingenuous.

This is an effective program.. They’ll work out the glitches. It’ll protect people. I think that’s the basic civil right –to be protected from harm – that we ought to pay some attention to.

HAFFENREFFER: David, hang on one second. I want to get in one more phone call because we’ve only got a minute left here. From
Lynn in Virginia, who’s got a question.

Hi, Lynn.

CALLER: How are you doing?

HAFFENREFFER: Good. What’s your question or comment?

CALLER: I don’t think much of this color coding. It looks like to me the police have already been through the racial profiling, or the profiling, and they’ve lost that case. And they do something like this, it’s like they’re going to be doing a whole lot of privacy issues there. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Lynn. Thanks for the phone call.

And David, I want to give you a final chance here to respond to some of what Richard said just a moment ago, certainly as you look at this system. And some people believe racial profiling is not the best way to go here.

SOBEL: Well, I don’t know what other organizations might be
saying about sky marshals or air marshals, but I personally believe that that is a much better approach, that that’s a reasonable place to put resources.

As someone who frequently flies, I would feel much more comfortable if I knew that there were a number of armed air marshals on my flights. I would feel much more comfortable knowing that and knowing that there’s a secure cockpit door than if the security was being based on some untested computer system that was likely based on inaccurate information.

Look, any of us who’ve seen our credit reports know how bad and out of date and just plain wrong a lot of this information can be. So I don’t want our security based on that kind of information because as we’ve always known garbage in, garbage out.

HAFFENREFFER: David, we’ve got to leave it there. David Sobel, thank you for joining us. And Richard Carlson, thank you for being with us this afternoon.