King Khan says he is fine after Newark airport search:
Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan on
Saturday said that he was doing well and was fine after his
two-hour-long ordeal at Newark...
Actor Shah Rukh Khan's two-hour detention and questioning at the
Newark International Airport could well be a result of the random
selection parameter built into the US immigration's security system
rather than racial profiling.
Now whether that parameter was designed deliberately
to focus on people of certain names, religion, background,
nationality or race is a different story altogether. On the face of
it, Khan may have been randomly picked out by the US Bureau of
Citizenship and Immigration Services' database. The system at the
airport threw up Khan's name for any number of variable reasons. It
is hard to speculate on the algorithm that triggered it.
Someone might argue that the Khan = Muslim = possible
terrorist = detention logic, although profoundly offensive, it seems
to have been built into the system with the rationale that it is
better to humiliate a thousand innocent Khans than let a potential
terrorist Khan enter the US.
However, this explanation does not make sense because
Khan has been visiting the US for many years. As a matter of fact,
he only recently finished a shooting schedule of his latest film "My
Name is Khan", which ironically deals with the kind of stereotyping
and profiling that he just experienced.
Isn't the Bureau's database designed in a way where
the immigration officer, who detained Khan, could have instantly
pulled up the actor's record and known about his many past visits?
Apparently not, because once the system randomly selects someone it
is expected of the officer in question to go through the standard
procedure of detention for questioning.
At some level it is understandable that the whole
security apparatus has been designed to not just take out potential
terrorists in their first attempt but to disrupt their operation at
any and every stage. No one at the Bureau is likely to acknowledge
that the system works the way it does because of a built-in
combination of intelligent and brute logic as well as preordained
Forget the Bureau's own database; a simple Google
search of Khan's name would have at the very least made the
detaining officer question his action. There are 3,610,000 search
results of his name on Google. Depending on when it is searched this
number is sometimes even higher. Such a Google search should have
stopped any reasonable immigration officer in their tracks to wonder
that for a terrorist, Khan has managed a fantastic cover of being
one of the world's biggest movie stars.
Perhaps behind creating a security system that
depends as much on brute and random logic as intelligent sifting was
the deeply embarrassing case of Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the
9/11 terror attacks.
In 2005, Navy Captain Scott J. Phillpott, who was in
charge of the Pentagon's counter-terrorism project codenamed 'Able
Danger', created a stir when he said in January 2000 his team had
identified Atta as a member of an Al-Qaeda terror cell operating in
Brooklyn, New York. And yet Atta was able to travel in and out of
the US unmolested. Atta's lapse was attributed to the fact that he
first went by part of his name as Mohamed el-Amir and eventually
travelled to the US in June 2000 as Mohammed Atta.
The result of the security churning that followed
9/11 was the compilation of a list of nearly 1.1 million names who
were either terror suspects or people of interest by the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The list has been a subject of
serious scrutiny and criticism by civil liberties groups, which
believe it is sweeping in its reach and more often than not throws
up those who have absolutely nothing to do with any terrorist
An internal audit report recently quoted by The
Washington Times underscored the failures in managing the list. It
said there were at least 10 people who should have been kept out of
the US according to the list but were allowed to enter while there
were many more who should not have been on it but remain there.
It quoted Democratic Senator Patrick J. Leahy, who as
the chairman of the Judiciary Committee has oversight of the FBI, as
saying "that the FBI continues to fail to place subjects of
terrorism investigations on the watch list is unacceptable".
"Disturbingly, (the) report reveals that in 72
percent of the cases, the FBI has also failed to remove subjects
from the list in a timely manner. ... Given the very real and
negative consequences to which people on the watch list are
subjected, this is unacceptable."
It is not clear whether Khan's name is on this list
or not but the fact he showed up on the immigration's database it is
conceivable that a similar name is on it. However, it should be
rather easy for the law enforcement agencies to specifically exclude
someone of Khan's global recognition from such a list.
Now that every visitor to the US and even permanent
residents are fully fingerprinted on arrival every time it is hard
to comprehend why specific names attached to specific fingerprints
and passport numbers cannot be exempted. For some reason once a
person gets on the FBI watch list it is very difficult to get off.
The Washington Times story said some 65,000 names were audited and
more than a third of it were outdated.
Security experts say that the random selection
parameter is designed to make preventive determination more
effective. They acknowledge that one of the negative fallouts is
that many innocent people get singled out because of this parameter.
They also point out that when the national threat index is higher
the system is designed to become less discriminating. In simple
terms, during heightened alerts it is possible that the system will
sweep up many more people with a set of specific names and
backgrounds than it would normally do.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, for
all domestic and international flights, the current US threat level
is High, or Orange, which is just below the highest Red. That may
partly explain how the actor was singled out because of his name. It
is a form of profiling based on many parameters such as names,
religion, ethnicity and nationality.
As Khan acknowledged the immigration officials were
polite but the question is not one of etiquette but effectiveness.
Khan managed to stir up those who matter because of who he is.
Lesser mortals might have had to go through a more nerve-racking
experience once red flags go up against their names and they are
asked to step aside at the immigration counter.
Mayank Chhaya is the editor of South
Asia Daily in the US. He can be contacted at