Newspaper Refuses to Play Ball on Terror Alerts

Friday, August 24, 2007

The release of a controversial FBI security alert has highlighted the post-9/11 balancing act law enforcement agencies must perform as they attempt to prevent a new terror strike in the United States, analysts say.

The alert issued by FBI agents in Seattle on Monday called for the public's help in identifying photographs of two Middle Eastern-looking men who had been reported travelling on ferries exhibiting "unusual behavior."

While the FBI release stressed the men's behavior may have been "innocuous," critics have said the alert smacked of racial profiling.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper declined to publish the photos, citing civil liberties and privacy concerns.

"We have no confirmation that these men's behavior was anything but innocuous, and to forever taint them by associating them with terrorism under these circumstances is not consistent with our policy," the paper said.

But the decision not to publish drew an angry response on the paper's online message boards, with several bloggers criticizing the daily's stance.

In a report last year, the Justice Department named the Washington State Ferry System -- which transports tens of thousands of people every day -- as the No.1 target for maritime terrorism in the US along with petroleum tankers on the Gulf Coast.

The FBI's assistant special agent in charge, Dave Gomez, said the alert was deemed necessary in order to definitively rule out suspicions about the men's behavior, which "showed an inordinate interest in the operation of the shipboard systems."

"We no longer have the luxury to wait until an act of terrorism occurs before we are pro-active. That's all we're trying to do here."

However, experts were divided on whether the security alert would generate useful leads or whether it could lead to "false positives" clogging the intelligence gathering network and putting a strain on resources.

David Harris, professor of law and values at the University of Toledo, said while information provided by the public played a key role in counter-terrorism, alerts that were too general could overload the system.

"The public has to be an integral part of any operation or effort to make us safe," Harris told AFP.

"Having said that, if you put out information like this you're unlikely to get a lot that will be helpful, and you are likely to get a lot of information into the system that will be basically unhelpful.

"You know the old saying 'separating the wheat from the chaff?' Well, you're going to get a ton of chaff."

Harris, author of a 2005 book "Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing," said the problem was that members of the public were not trained to pick up on subtle behavioral cues.

Harris cited the example of "Millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested after his demeanor aroused the suspicions of customs officers as he crossed into the US from Canada in 1999. Ressam was later convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

"They didn't pick him out because he looked like a Middle Easterner; they picked him out because he was behaving suspiciously vis-a-vis his car and other things," Harris said. "It's all about behavior."

Yet other experts said law enforcement agencies were in a no-win position, and were right to issue the alert.

Michael Smith, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, acknowledged that there was a possibility that the Seattle alert could lead to "unwarranted suspicion falling on all Middle Eastern-looking men."

"But that intrusion must be weighed against the alternative, which is a terror attack on a ferry," Smith said in an email to AFP.

While the alert may generate a glut of information, Smith noted that "experience has shown that somewhere in the chaff is often the key piece of information that is missing."

"In today's world, law enforcement should and will err on the side of caution," he added.

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