US flies visa control kite over Pakistani Brit 'terror suspects'
Tough talk cloaks the next data grab?
US representatives moved swiftly into denial mode in the wake of Monday's New York Times claim that homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff had proposed excluding UK citizens "of Pakistani origin" from the US visa waiver programme. The visa waiver programme allows visa-free travel to the US for citizens from a select group of countries, and comes under regular fire from log-rolling US politicians.
But the US rejects profiling, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security told BBC radio yesterday, while today, US London Embassy consul general John Caulfield denied that Chertoff had made the comments attributed to him by the NYT. Which is a puzzle, given that the NYT didn't attribute any comments directly to Chertoff. But it does look as if any plan to exclude UK-Pakistani citizens from the programme won't fly, because of the strength of the denials and for reasons of practicality and politics.
What, for example, might one mean by "of Pakistani origin"? The presence of such people, whoever they are, on the programme is described as a "loophole", but a precise definition is tricky. The DHS could to an extent nail down a list by confining it to British citizens who were born in Pakistan, but that wouldn't exactly get them very far, considering that this doesn't apply to quite a few of those who've been convicted in the current wave of high profile UK terror trials. Many of these were British born, and others are of non-Pakistani origin and/or ancestry. Dhiren Barot, for example, the "gas limo bomber" who was implausibly claimed to be the security services' biggest al-Qaeda pinch so far, is a muslim convert of Indian origin, while the July 21st defendants included an Eritrean and a Somali. Omar Khyam, "pivotal" in the fertiliser bomb plot, was born in the UK 25 years ago into a Pakistani family with "a tradition of serving in the Pakistani military and the ISI, the intelligence service" (Guardian 1st May 2007), and trained in a "terror" camp in Pakistan in 2000. This, unfortunately, turns out to have been an ISI-sponsored camp for Kashmiri militants.
Essentially, if the DHS wanted to exclude those it deems a terror risk it would have to consider ancestry, and figure out what to do about all of those suspicious characters who were neither Pakistan born nor of Pakistani ancestry. Dark complexioned muslims then? Tricky, but not necessarily wildly out of line with what happens to them already at US immigration. Or how about people with a history of travelling to and from Pakistan?
Now, in our estimation this is a little closer to what's really happening. First of all, look not at the fallout but at what the NYT story actually said:
"Among the options that have been put on the table, according to British officials, was the most onerous option to Britain, that of canceling the entire visa waiver program that allows all Britons entry to the United States without a visa. Another option, politically fraught as it is, would be to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States."
Note that these are not 'either/or' options. They are proposals tabled as part of discussions with the UK Home Office, and they're both effectively unthinkable, cancellation of the programme being a nuclear option regularly deployed in talks with the EU, but not something the US could do without costing itself a bundle in lost business and tourist spend.* Excluding Pakistani Brits from the programme we've already seen is unworkable, and would come with the additional payload of undermining the US relationship with Pakistan itself, a key ally in the GWOT (honest, the ISI's on our side really). They're both negotiating ploys.
Now, check what the NYT says the British Government says:
"Rather than impose any visa restrictions, the British government has told Washington it would prefer if the Americans simply deported Britons who failed screening once they arrived at an airport in the United States, British officials said. The British also screen at their end, and share intelligence with the Americans."
Should you feel tempted to join sections of the UK media in tentatively congratulating the Home Office on its tough stance against the US threats, consider what this means in terms of the third degree and summary expulsion for the people whose rights it's 'defending.' Then take into account the fact that one of Chertoff's major concerns with the UK and Europe over the past few years has been to increase the amount of data the US gets on EU citizens visiting the US and to encourage countries to "assist the United States in doing effective checks on travelers" (statement, 28th November 2006).
Significantly, in 'rejecting' profiling yesterday the DHS spokesman said that the DHS does "see value in profiling based on behaviour", and came up with the weird example of "going in and out of the bathroom repeatedly." He did not specify whether or not frequency of urination and Heathrow CCTV records would be added to the passenger name records currently supplied to the US by airlines, but the DHS is clearly keen to collect a lot more data about potential visitors, and this push for better security based on more intensive behavioural profiling has been a common thread in US responses to the visa waiver story over the past two days.
So what have we got? Data hungry US officials in talks with data sharing crazy UK Home Secretary John Reid. UK-Pakistani citizens will surely be 'saved' from expulsion from the waiver programme, but the price will be further easing of the already doubtful restrictions on data sharing with the US, and increased, systematic scrutiny of muslim, sorry, UK-Pakistani visitors to the US. But they're being behaviorally, not racially, profiled. ®
* Continuing to qualify for the waiver programme is habitually trotted out by HMG as a core justification for blowing £20 billion or more on a national ID scheme. So getting kicked off the programme would almost be worth it for the entertainment value of watching them try to explain why that wasn't the point after all.
I've only ever been to the US once, and the only way I can describe the immigration counters is: Hostile. It feels like if you're not a US citizen, you are obviously looking to damage the US in some way. I was more frightened going through US customs on a valid business trip than going through Hong Kong customs on an expired German child's passport when I was 9, without my parents. Even going through Chinese immigration is better!
One of the funniest comments I overheard has to be at Heathrow airport, from an American family queuing up at passport control:
"Gawd, Whai do we hav to waaait with aawl these people? Don't they know we're Americans? This is rehdiculous."
Obviously never gone through US customs as a foreigner then...
As to the Pakistani profiling, it sounds like the same type of paranoia that stopped an Asian family from flying soon after 9/11. Some ignorant passengers complained that they wouldn't fly if the Asian family did, kicked up a fuss, and the family got kicked off.
That, and I thought it was the Saudi's the Americans needed to worry about?
Didn't seem to mind letting Irish terrorists in
They never seemed to mind allowing Irish terrorists (actual terrorists, not just suspects) onto their shores for the odd bit of fund raising. Infact, the senators, congressmen, police officers and firemen who helped raise the money for the killing of British citizens didn't seem to mind much at all.
Ofcourse, I don't think that there's a large group of Pakistani-American voters to sway.
Not all guards are rude (about 50/50)
A few years ago I went to the US as part of a large party of snowboarders (there were around 20 of us) and from our experiences at US Border Control in Atlanta I think the spilt is about 50/50 (professional attitude vs powertripping assholes)
The guard I got (we ended up fairly spread out in seperate queues) was friendly, fast and efficient. He even cracked a joke about my limp (I'd damaged my knee recently), and how he could perform amateur surgery - I forget the exact joke but it was quite funny and not half as spooky as that probably sounds now
It was relatively painless and whilst thorough was quite a friendly welcome to the country
About 50% of my freinds had similar experiences - the others were amazing
3 of our group were nearly refused entry for not knowing the exact address of where we were staying. They were able to give the address of the chalet letting company and the resort, but for fairly obvious reasons could not give the exact address of the chalet they were staying in down to the door number (since that's allocated on arrival)
Other stories were just as bizarre and in all we had to wait about 45 minutes for them all to clear customs
The 3 stick in my mind though as although we were not close enough to overhear the conversations exactly (they aren't exactly keen on people waiting on the other side of the desks), from where I was stood I could see them being grilled and basically shouted at. When they came thorugh they were visibly shaken and angry
To put it in perspective a little we aren't teenagers or even 20 somethings having a jolly (I wish) - just for those of you out there who have a mental image of a teenager winding up security. We are all professionals and one of the guys grilled is a company director
Its partly down to this experience that as a group we've never been back - Canada's been much more pleasant and has replaced the US 3 years running
If the US decide to start alienating my fellow countrymen based on ANY stereotype (other than maybe criminal records or actual past records). I would have no problems boycotting them all together - I hope our government puts it to them in exactly that context, it's all or nothing. Either the US is our friend and it values our business or it can remove the country entirely from the visa waiver program
And as for sharing any data on our citizens other than basic outstanding criminal records and ID cards in general - no comment