ABC News Paints Suspicious Men on Ferry as Victims of 'Ethnic Profiling'

Washington State authorities and the FBI on Monday released photos, taken by the captain of a Pugent Sound ferry, of two men that passengers and crew saw acting suspiciously -- taking photos of doorways, for instance -- but Thursday's Good Morning America seemed more concerned about “ethnic profiling” than identifying the potential terrorists who had been seen on up to a half-dozen ferries. “The case is raising concerns about security. But it's also raising concerns about possible ethnic profiling,” declared news reader Kate Snow. Reporter Neal Karlinsky asked: “Are these two men terrorists casing the boats for attack?” or “are they totally innocent passengers, the victims of ethnic profiling?” After noting their suspicious behavior, Karlinsky characterized them as victims: “But the men are not accused of anything, leading the Muslim community to wonder, what if the two men did not appear to be of Middle Eastern descent?” Aziz Junejo, Seattle Muslim Community spokesman, asserted: “To point that person out because of the features of a Middle Easterner is just plain wrong.” Karlinsky concluded: “The FBI says the huge ferry system is among the most vulnerable maritime targets in America. The question is, are these men a threat, or just victims of a jittery public?”

That we may never know, since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has refused to print the pictures of the men and the Seattle Times waited a day to do so. (Previous NB posts on this topic)

In his Wednesday “Best of the Web Today” posting/e-mail for OpinionJournal.com, James Taranto provided a humorous overview of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's reasoning. Check Taranto's post for all the links for what he quoted. A reprint of his lead August 22 item:
Don't Look Now

We begin today with a public service announcement from the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
The Seattle FBI and the Washington Joint Analytical Center (WAJAC) are requesting the public's assistance in identifying the two individuals pictured below. These men have been seen aboard Washington State Ferries on several occasions and have exhibited unusual behavior, which was reported by passengers. While this behavior may have been innocuous, the FBI and WAJAC would like to resolve these reports.
If you can identify these individuals, or know their whereabouts, please call: 206 622-0460

The Seattle FBI and the Washington Joint Analytical Center (WAJAC) are requesting the public's assistance in identifying the two individuals pictured [nearby]. These men have been seen aboard Washington State Ferries on several occasions and have exhibited unusual behavior, which was reported by passengers. While this behavior may have been innocuous, the FBI and WAJAC would like to resolve these reports.
You can click on the photos above or the link atop this column to go to the press release, which has the full pictures.

As the FBI notes, these men may be completely innocent; the bureau simply would like to find out who they are to make sure nothing is amiss. After all, as David McCumber, managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, notes, "according to a Justice Department inspector general's assessment, Puget Sound's ferries were the nation's No. 1 target for maritime terrorism. This may well be a case of alert citizens spotting a very real threat."

Accordingly, the P-I is . . . not publishing the photos. Seriously! McCumber explains:
The P-I ran a story about the FBI's alert, but did not run the photographs, because we didn't have enough information to warrant it. I hope that today we are able to get more information on this story, if it exists, from the FBI that would give us a clearer idea of the background behind their request.

Based on what we have, it seemed newsworthy that the FBI was trying to find these guys but it did not seem appropriate to run their photographs.
The FBI released the photos Monday afternoon, and the Seattle Times, like the P-I, declined to publish them yesterday. Today, however, the Times concluded that it did have enough information to publish the photos:
"They were taking photographs of doors, not seabirds," said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Richard Hartley in Seattle.
[FBI agent David] Gomez said employees and passengers reported the incidents over several weeks this summer. In at least one instance, they asked questions about ferry operations, Gomez said. It wasn't until analysts looked through the reports that a pattern was seen, he said. Since then, the FBI has concluded "four to six" of the incidents were related and involved the same two men. . . .

"We are able to resolve the great majority of reports of suspicious activities on the ferries," Gomez said. "We have not been able to do that here." The decision to release the photographs publicly was vetted with bureau officials in Washington, D.C., and demonstrates just how serious the potential threat is being taken, he said.
Perhaps the Times just did a better job reporting the story than the P-I did, but in any case the newspapers' reluctance to publish the photos is hard to understand. If the men are up to no good, then obviously it is in the public interest that they be caught. If they are up to no bad, it is in both the public interest and their own that they be identified and cleared.

If the latter is true, then one may argue the FBI should not have released the photos -- but the bureau had already done so, and the question cannot be resolved without identifying the men.

The Times report notes one source of objection:
The release of the photos enraged some in the Arab-American and Muslim communities, said Aziz Junejo, who hosts an Islamic talk show on television and writes a column about Islam for The Seattle Times.
He called the release "careless" and said he has been inundated with complaints that the FBI is profiling Arab-Americans. He said the photos appear to be of two Arab-American men.

"The people I'm hearing from are outraged and angry and paranoid," he said. "They're afraid to ride the ferries now."
But this is illogical. The FBI is not looking willy-nilly for "Arab-Americans," but for two individual men whose behavior raised a red flag, and who may or may not be of Arab heritage.

In any case, the P-I's very serious weighing of this very serious issue was belied yesterday when it ran -- we're not kidding -- a haiku contest. Wrote the paper's Monica Guzman:
As the story develops today, what concerns you most: The possible threat to security? The way the alert was released? Something completely different? Put it in a three-line, 5-7-5 syllable bit of pop haiku for today's contest.
Today Guzman issues a mea culpa:
While the Big Blog mixes fun and news on a daily basis, in this case we undermined a serious issue and a serious debate, and made it seem as if we in the newsroom didn't acknowledge its importance.
We're a little disappointed, because we came up with a funny haiku about the P-I. Oh well, we'll save it for another time.

END of Taranto
Friday's Seattle Times reported:
FBI gets 200 tips over ferry photo

The FBI says it has received more than 200 leads and tips after the publication of a photograph of two men seen acting suspiciously on several Washington state ferries.

While the men have not been identified, Special Agent Larry Carr said Thursday that the bureau is hopeful "that we'll be able to have this matter resolved soon." Carr declined to say more.

The FBI earlier this week released two photographs of the men taken last month aboard an unidentified Puget Sound ferry.

The photos were shot by the boat's captain after complaints that the men were acting strangely.

FBI analysts concluded the same men were seen on between four and six different ferries.
The MRC's Scott Whitlock caught the August 23 Good Morning America story aired during the 8am news update:
KATE SNOW: The FBI is publicizing the pictures of two men who have reportedly been acting suspiciously onboard ferries in Washington State, allegedly taking unusual pictures and asking questions about how the ferries operate. The case is raising concerns about security. But it's also raising concerns about possible ethnic profiling. Our Neal Karlinsky explains.

NEAL KARLINSKY, OVER VIDEO OF PICTURES ON A WALL: Aboard Washington State ferry boats this morning, a question: Are these two men terrorists casing the boats for attack?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE FERRY PASSENGER: It's pretty scary, actually, a little disconcerting.

KARLINSKY: Or are they totally innocent passengers, the victims of ethnic profiling? The FBI says it posted the pictures after passengers on a half dozen ferry runs reported seeing the two men acting suspiciously. Taking pictures aboard these ferries isn't unusual. After all, it is beautiful here. What concerns the FBI is what these men were allegedly taking pictures of. They were reportedly photographing doorways and other areas. A ferry employee considered them suspicious enough to take their picture and for passengers to report seeing the pair doing the same thing on other ferry runs.

ROBERTA BURROUGHS, FBI: If you'd like to say we're profiling particular behavior, I'm comfortable with that, because this is behavior that people felt uncomfortable with.

JEFF KELSO, PASSENGER WEARING A BOSTON REX SOX CAP: I mean, I don't know how many people, you know, go on a trip and come home with a picture of a doorway on a ferry.

KARLINSKY: But the men are not accused of anything, leading the Muslim community to wonder, what if the two men did not appear to be of Middle Eastern descent?

AZIZ JUNEJO, SEATTLE MUSLIM COMMUNITY SPOKESMAN: To point that person out because of the features of a Middle Easterner is just plain wrong.

KARLINSKY: The FBI says the huge ferry system is among the most vulnerable maritime targets in America. The question is, are these men a threat, or just victims of a jittery public? For Good Morning America, Neal Karlinsky, ABC News, Seattle.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center