Proper profiling

January 29, 2004

AT A TIME when the phrase "good enough for government work" has been transformed from a World War II compliment to an insult, it's no wonder that Jose E. Melendez-Perez earned a round of applause at a hearing this week of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He was just doing his job as a border agent, he said, when he refused to admit into the country a Saudi national now believed part of the terrorists' plot. Yet, Mr. Melendez-Perez stands out as exceptional for exactly that: He was not only enforcing the law to the letter but also applying gut instinct and common sense to the task.

As the commission pokes through the embers of the 9/11 disaster to learn what went wrong, this tale of what a border agent did right offers valuable guidance about shaping screening policies in the future.

Turns out a lot more went wrong before 9/11 than federal officials previously admitted. The 19 hijackers were not all seemingly innocent, law-abiding visitors who aroused little suspicion. According to the commission, up to eight of them carried passports that appeared to have been doctored, and as many as five exhibited warning flags that prompted questions by border officials.

Nine were considered potential flight risks, but that meant only that their luggage was screened for explosives.

Among those who should have set off alarms was Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader. He presented the wrong kind of student visa when he approached border officials at Miami International Airport, was older and better dressed than most students, but got in anyway.

Mohamed al-Qahtani, who commission members suspect also intended to take part in the hijacking, was turned away because he encountered Mr. Melendez-Perez. The border agent said he was suspicious because the Saudi had only a one-way ticket from Dubai, no hotel reservations, and little money. Further, the traveler's physique suggested military training, and he seemed familiar with interview techniques.

When pressed for information, Mr. al-Qahtani became hostile, and told the border agent it was none of his business.

"He gave me the creeps," Mr. Melendez-Perez said of the Saudi, who he thought at the time might be a professional hitman.

This country can never have foolproof border controls; there's too much border to control. All the more reason that officials who screen visitors need to become more skillful at profiling. Not racial or ethnic profiling, but use of a sophisticated set of instincts that respond to behavioral signals and other indicators that raise alarms.

If "good enough for government work" once again becomes an accolade, we'll all be safer.

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