Government to Argue That Detention for Carrying Arabic Flashcards Was Justified

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ThousandsThis is an update on a story I mentioned in 2010 ("TSA Detains Possible Terrorist Armed With Flashcards"), and today's update shows that the government has, if possible, lost IQ points and concern for civil rights over the last two years.

Nicholas George was detained in Philadelphia and interrogated for four hours after sharp-eyed but pinheaded TSA employees decided he was a threat because: (1) his passport shows he's been to the Middle East sometime in his life and (2) he was carrying flashcards with Arabic words on them (including "bomb"). There are two possible explanations for these facts, of course: (1) he is a student who is studying the Middle East and the language most people speak there, or (2) he is a English-speaking terrorist who is for some reason planning to say "bomb" in Arabic on a plane in the United States.

I mean, I know you people recruit "agents" by advertising on pizza boxes, but is just a basic intelligence test at some point too much to ask? Can you not fit that line item into your enormous budget?

Seriously—a TSA supervisor asked George the following series of questions (among others):

  1. "Who did 9/11?"
  2. "Do you know what language he spoke?" and
  3. "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

Well, that's an ironclad case. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant openly admitted that he was in possession of materials bearing words in the same language spoken by the one man who did 9/11!" Yup, probable cause, no question about it.

By the way, according to this report, while our heroes were scrutinizing the deadly flashcards, the suspected terrorist's checked bag was being loaded onto the plane and it proceeded on to California. Luckily without exploding.

Represented by the ACLU, George sued the TSA, the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The government moved to dismiss, and appealed when its motion was denied. Today, someone will argue to the Third Circuit, presumably with a straight face, that a citizen treated this way has no cause for complaint.

A TSA spokesperson has previously claimed that the flashcards are a red herring because the detention was also based on observations by TSA "behavioral specialists." These people watch for "involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered," she said, one flaw in that system being that people exhibit pretty much the same reactions in response to, say, a fear of being groped and interrogated. (Tip: anger at and "contempt" for the TSA are also normal human reactions, not evidence of terrorist intent.)

She was talking, of course, about the "SPOT" program, which according to reports in March has resulted in zero terrorism-related arrests since 2004, during which time "at least 17 known terrorists have flown on 24 different occasions" from airports where the program was in operation. See "FBI Counter-Terror Agent: TSA's Incompetence 'Frightens Me,'" Lowering the Bar (Mar. 8, 2012). One great benefit of this program, at least from the TSA's point of view, is probably that it rests entirely on subjective determinations that are inherently difficult to disprove and so could always be beefed up (or just made up) after the fact to justify any action.

I'm not saying that's what happened here, I'm just saying that's what probably happened here.