The Folly of Fingerprinting

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A 5-year-old child, a Chinese grandmother, a Welsh insurance agent, a prominent scientist and two average Joes. Six cases of mistaken identity -- six grounded flights between Paris and Los Angeles.

Most of us are in favor of the authorities erring on the side of caution when it comes to keeping airlines from being hijacked. So there was little complaint raised about the Bush administration grounding flights seemingly at random during the Christmas holidays.

But most of us are also in favor of competence. And it's starting to seem in ever-shorter supply when it comes to preventing terror attacks.

For example, The Toronto Sun, citing Canadian-U.S. documentation, reports the U.S. federal government has "a master list of 5 million people worldwide thought to be potential terrorists or criminals." Five million people! Exactly how is this list being assembled? No wonder they're calling in the SWAT teams over 5-year-olds and Welsh insurance agents.

That's the depressing background to the new U.S. policy of fingerprinting every Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian, etc., upon arrival: It won't work. So if you find it insulting, but have been consoling yourself that at least it might save lives and stop murders, you and the White House have one thing in common: You're both kidding yourselves.

If we had been collecting millions of fingerprints and photos before Sept. 11, 2001, would that attack have been foiled? Of course not. We already had all sorts of specific and relevant information about the Sept. 11 hijackers; we had the raw data at our fingertips; we just didn't analyze it well.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, in making this very point, recently listed everything we knew yet ignored about the Sept. 11 hijackers:

• In late August 2001, Nawaq Alhamzi and Khalid Al-Midhar bought tickets to fly on American Airlines flight 77, which was flown into the Pentagon. They bought the tickets under their real names -- names that were also on a State Department/INS watch list (spelled correctly, and not at all Welsh-sounding).

• The CIA and FBI were looking for Alhamzi and Al-Midhar as suspected terrorists, in part because they had been observed at a "terrorist meeting" in Malaysia. The whole time, they were in San Diego -- where they'd rented an apartment under their own names and were listed in the phone book.

• Using the Internet to search for common addresses, analysts would have discovered that other hijackers shared an address with Alhamzi and Al-Midhar -- including Mohamed Atta (who was on American Airlines flight 11, which flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center) and Marwan Al-Shehhi (on United flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower).

• Similar searches of common addresses, phone numbers and even, believe it or not, frequent flier numbers -- coupled with an INS watch list of expired visas -- would have led to all of the other hijackers, including those who boarded United flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but what is needed is better and more timely analysis," Gore observed. "Simply piling up more raw data that is almost entirely irrelevant is not only not going to help. It may actually hurt the cause. As one FBI agent said privately of [Attorney General John] Ashcroft: 'We're looking for a needle in a haystack here, and he is just piling on more hay.'"

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. []