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New National Security Distraction: Arabic Language Students

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February 10, 2010

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Today, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nick George, a Pomona College student who was detained and aggressively interrogated by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) authorities, by the FBI and by Pennsylvania police when he tried to board a plane carrying Arabic language flash cards.

You heard right: Not liquids, not matches, not a bomb. Flash cards.

George, a physics major who’s studying Arabic, was pulled aside for secondary screening at the Philadelphia International Airport as he tried to go through security. When he emptied his pockets, the inspector saw his flash cards and he was arrested, handcuffed, locked in a cell for hours and aggressively questioned. Because of some flash cards.

The following exchange took place between George and a TSA supervisor who questioned him:

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.

At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards — which had words such as “to smile” and “funny” and on them — and said: “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?”

Ah, the smoking gun.

Here’s the problem: During George’s ordeal, no fewer than seven law enforcement officers took part in detaining and questioning him. The unnecessary arrest, detention and questioning of someone who, like George, poses no threat to flight safety, makes everyone less safe by diverting resources away from real threats.

George said today, “As someone who travels by plane, I want TSA agents to do their job to keep flights safe. But I don’t understand how locking me up and harassing me just because I was carrying the flash cards made anybody safer. No one should be treated like a criminal for simply learning one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world.”

One of the FBI agents who questioned him put it best, we think. At the end of his ordeal, he said to George: “The police call us to evaluate whether there is a real threat. You are not a real threat.”

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