January 02, 2004

France is Cleared

Last week I harped on the French police for letting seven possible terrorists go. The FBI matched their names on Air France flight manifests to those on a US terrorist watch list.

Forget I mentioned it. France did nothing wrong.

As it turned out, those who were detained were caught up in mistaken identity.

Their names were coincidentally the same or only similar to those on the terrorist watch list. One of them was only seven years old.

It looks like incompetence. But itís also to be expected when officials need to act quickly on imperfect and murky intelligence.

ĒA check was carried out in each case and in each case it turned out to be negative," a [French] ministry spokesman told AFP.

"The FBI worked with family names and some family names sound alike," the spokesman said, noting that some of the names had been transliterated from Arabic, which uses a different alphabet from French and English.

"The difficulty is compounded when you have no first name or date of birth," he said.

If it hadnít taken a week for all the details to emerge, this would have been a non-story.


UPDATE: The first story I linked to said seven people on terrorist watch lists were found to have purchased tickets on Air France flights. And the second story said six were released. I wondered what happened to the seventh person, but chalked it up to sloppy reporting.

Turns out, the seventh person ran away and no one knows where he is.

One passenger who did not show up for the flight has fled and cannot be found, a U.S. intelligence official said. He was described as a male of Middle Eastern descent who is a pilot, according to another U.S. intelligence official.
(Via Jeff Jarvis.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2004 01:25 PM
Comments

I am not certain it is incompetence at all.

According to reports this week, only now are the TSA/CIA/FBI are given the names of passengers before the flight takes off, and now it is only two hours prior to takeoff. So within two hours of any given foreign flight to the US, the TSA/CIA/FBI/CIT complex has to vet up to 400 or so names.

I don't believe Kiefer Sutherland could do a better job.

The real question is why all the wingnuts assumed the French were acting against the US.

Thanks for your apology, I wonder how long before the professor determines you're just on the other side.

Posted by: anne.elk at January 2, 2004 02:32 PM

This is exactly why I waited before forming an opinion. Having been a victim of mistaken identity, I wasn't quick to assume anything. I certainly didn't take it at face value that they had the right people.

And even if it weren't a case of mistaken identity, the case would have raised interesting and complex legal issues around due process and international law - questions which are not easily dismissed. Due process tends to infuriate non-criminals and victims, but it's there for good reasons, and it's essential for a "nation of laws." Protections might seem infuriating when someone is let go, but they also prevent abuses. It's a delicate and important balance. This was definitely a case I wanted to learn more about. So thanks for your update. I hadn't seen the story yet.

Posted by: karrie at January 2, 2004 03:18 PM

It was kinda funny, in a sad sort of way, to catch the "we're being attacked by France" thread on LGF.

I don't suppose on 9/11/01 that the same people assumed that New York and D.C. were under attack by Boston.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at January 2, 2004 03:28 PM

Anne: I am not certain it is incompetence at all.

No, I don't think it is either. I said it looks like incompetence, but that it actually isn't. I mean, picking up a seven year old looks pretty ridiculous out of context.

The real question is why all the wingnuts assumed the French were acting against the US.

Because that's the way it looked based on the information available at the time. And also because it fits a pattern. If it didn't fit a pattern, I wouldn't have made the assumption. But I don't hate France (really) and I have no desire whatsoever to accuse the French of something they didn't do. Hence this post.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2004 03:48 PM

Michael, releasing terrorists so they can act against the US is a pattern with France?

I mean, I'm not saying it can't be true. But there's a big difference between greedy obstructionism and directly helping people to kill us.

Really, how could even the most nefarious bureaucrat decide that releasing these people for any reason other than that they weren't actually a threat be a good plan? Like we weren't going to notice?

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at January 2, 2004 04:47 PM

I guess the real question is, why would any future or current terrorist use his real name?

Posted by: scotty the body at January 2, 2004 06:33 PM

But there's a big difference between greedy obstructionism and directly helping people to kill us.

I was referring to France's pattern of uncooperativeness, not trying to imply that they actually want to help people kill us.

Anyway, I blew it as you can see.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2004 10:17 PM

You know, I can't help thinking that an Administration which had counterterrorism as a major priority would manage to have approximate ages on a list of suspected terrorists.

Posted by: Kimmitt at January 2, 2004 11:20 PM

I can't help thinking that an Administration which had counterterrorism as a major priority would manage to have approximate ages on a list of suspected terrorists.

They very well may. The problem is that they didn't know the age of the people who bought tickets on Air France flights. They didn't know the suspect was seven years old until he was arrested. That isn't anyone's fault. Air France doesn't cite the ages of its customers on the manifests it hands over to us.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2004 11:36 PM

I'm just saying -- it seems like that one should have taken a grand total of fourteen seconds to clear up.

Posted by: Kimmitt at January 2, 2004 11:44 PM

it seems like that one should have taken a grand total of fourteen seconds to clear up.

Heh. It probably did. And, of course, had I known that in the first place I wouldn't have given France a bit of grief over it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2004 11:53 PM

One issue that keeps comming up with this sort of thing is the names themselves. Arabic translates to english in a way that isn't nearly as clearcut as we'd like. Usama vs. Osama. And a million other similar translation issues that mean that some names are a lot more difficult to track then John Smith. For that matter most languages that use a different alphabet have several translations, so it's not just a problem with arabic.

Oh, and
"it seems like that one should have taken a grand total of fourteen seconds to clear up."

C'mon, lets be serious for a second. they surely noticed right quick that they didn't get what they expected. The proper response is not 'Okay, nothing to see here move along" - that would be rather reckless. The proper reaction is more along the lines of "Wait a minute, what are we doing here again?" and check things over. Obviously something is funny with the intelligence, so finding out what is a good idea, isn't it?

Michael

Posted by: Michael at January 3, 2004 09:50 AM

Am I the only person who gets the feeling that given the number of flights that have been canceled or accompanied by F-16s, etc, we don't really have hard information? And, in fact, I feel like this flurry of activity screams "We know nothing" to all the wrong people. Or maybe there really is an incredibly huge number of people assembled for hijackings? Either's possible.

Posted by: linden at January 3, 2004 03:05 PM

Well, with the exception of some Mexican officials, who may well not have been privy to intelligence shared, I have heard no complaints about overreaction, despite the fact that there were no arrests. Whatever the intel community had, it seems to have scared everybody. That's a slightly different question from the adequacy of watchlists, and the most effective, least obtrusive, screening procedures.

A good learning experience; nobody died.

Posted by: Alene Berk at January 3, 2004 07:26 PM

I gotta say, if I were a male of Middle Eastern descent who is a pilot and I appeared on the US's radar screen at any point, I'd be disappearing, too. The US is not known for its restraint in dealing with such people, and I'd want to see my family again some day.

Posted by: Kimmitt at January 4, 2004 10:39 AM

Actually, don't jump to any conclusions yet. I just heard on NPR this morning (January 8) that a suspected member of Al Qaeda DID NOT SHOW UP for one of those cancelled flights and authorities believe he is in posession of a small bomb.

Posted by: Scotty The Body at January 7, 2004 04:20 AM

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