Politics & Policy

Listen to Lehman

The press attention is on the wrong commissioners.

Richard Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey received the lion’s share of media attention paid to last week’s 9/11 Commission hearing with Condoleezza Rice, thanks to their generally intemperate questioning style. But while Ben-Veniste and Kerrey played to the cameras, it was their colleague, John Lehman, who was breaking new ground with the national-security adviser, but few noticed.

Lehman’s focus was the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations. He told Rice that he was “struck by the continuity of the policies rather than the differences,” and then he proceeded to ask Rice a series of blunt questions as to what she was told during the transition.

Among Lehman’s questions was this: “Were you aware that it was the policy…to fine airlines if they have more than two young Arab males in secondary questioning because that’s discriminatory?”

Rice replied: “No, I have to say that the kind of inside arrangements for the FAA are not really in my….” (Lehman quickly followed up: “Well, these are not so inside.”)

Watching the hearings on television with the rest of the nation, I wondered what in the world Secretary Lehman was talking about. This, I’d never heard before. Was he saying that the security of our airlines had been sacrificed by political correctness? A few days after the klieg lights had faded, I had the chance to ask him.

“We had testimony a couple of months ago from the past president of United, and current president of American Airlines that kind of shocked us all,” Lehman told me. “They said under oath that indeed the Department of Transportation continued to fine any airline that was caught having more than two people of the same ethnic persuasion in a secondary line for line for questioning, including and especially, two Arabs.”

Wait a minute. So if airline security had three suspicious Arab guys they had had to let one go because they’d reached a quota?

That was it, Lehman said, “because of this political correctness that became so entrenched in the 1990s, and continues in current administration. No one approves of racial profiling, that is not the issue. The fact is that Norwegian women are not, and 85-year-old women with aluminum walkers are not, the source of the terrorist threat. The fact is that our enemy is the violent Islamic extremism and the overwhelming number of people that one need to worry about are young Arab males, and to ask them a couple of extra questions seems to me to be common sense, yet if an airline does that in numbers that are more than proportionate to their number in particular line, then they get fined and that is why you see so many blue haired old ladies and people that are clearly not of Middle Eastern extraction being hauled out in such numbers because otherwise they get fined.”

Wow. How refreshing to hear somebody tell it like it is. Too bad this critically important subject is not receiving the attention afforded to items like the PDB of August 6, 2001. Judging by Secretary Lehman’s question of Dr. Rice, this ridiculous policy might still be in place by the Department of Transportation, which would mean our airlines continue to be exposed to great risk of terrorists who travels in threes!

So I ran all of this by Herb Kelleher, the legendary chairman of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher confirmed it, and that it began during the Clinton administration. The Justice Department said it was “concerned about equality of treatment with respect to screening.” Kelleher said, “The random element was put in…where you just choose people at random as opposed to picking them out for some particular reason, and that of course caused a great many more people to be screened.”

“So we don’t offend?” I asked.

“That was the root of it, yes,” he said.

I’m starting to understand why John McCain was insistent that Secretary Lehman be put on the commission. Like McCain, Lehman isn’t beholden to the partisan Democrats, or to the administration. This former Navy reserve officer who flew combat missions over Vietnam and was named Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy when he was just 38 years old, seems only to want the truth exposed, without regard for the blame game that has come to characterize the public proceedings of the 9/11 Commission. I only wish we had nine more like him, in which case I’d be much more confident that we’re in the process of getting to the bottom of what went wrong and ensuring it doesn’t happen again, instead of the high-stakes partisan skirmish that seems to have taken shape.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and talk-show host with “The Big Talker 1210AM” in Philadelphia.

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