San Diego Union-Tribune

October 27, 2001

Issa suggests profiling kept him off flight
   Air France says congressman arrived too late


By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Darrell Issa, who is of Lebanese descent, says he may have been a victim of ethnic profiling when he was barred from an Air France flight to Paris earlier this month and wants an apology from the airline.

But a spokesman for Air France said the Republican from Vista arrived too late for the flight to fulfill new security requirements that apply to all passengers, regardless of ethnicity or official standing.

The Oct. 4 incident at Washington's Dulles International Airport adds a new, high-visibility twist to the continuing debate over security and profiling in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Dozens of Arab-Americans have been barred from flights or asked to leave after boarding, Arab-American advocacy groups say.

Issa was on his way to the Middle East to meet with leaders about the U.S. response to the attacks and was holding a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia, via Paris. He was planning to visit several other countries in the region before returning home.

In an interview yesterday, the congressman did not flatly accuse Air France of racial or ethnic profiling, though he suggested that could have been the case. At the very least, Issa said, he was the victim of a "computer racial profiling error" if his name raised a
red flag in the airline's security system.

"I'm waiting for an explanation. I personally think I'm owed an apology. But I'm more concerned about them changing their policy so this doesn't happen to anyone else," said Issa, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants.

Air France spokesman Jim Faulkner said the airline's records show that Issa tried to check in for the flight 10 minutes after the cutoff time. All passengers must be checked in at least one hour before departure, Faulkner said, and after Sept. 11 there are no exceptions, even for members of Congress.

"I can say definitely that it's because he showed up after the flight closed," he said, adding, "It's a different world now."

Faulkner also told The Associated Press that Issa "caused quite a scene and he wasn't very polite."

Issa acknowledges that he was running late because of evening work in the House. But he said he got to the check-in counter at least 58 minutes before takeoff and could have easily answered any security concerns, especially since he was carrying a special passport used by members of Congress on official trips.

"They didn't want to hear about it," he said. "They clearly understood I was a U.S. congressman. They just kept coming back to the same answer: 'I'm sorry, we can't clear you for security reasons, you're flying tomorrow.' "

Issa said he went to the departure gate and talked to an Air France manager, who wouldn't budge either. He then requested that his traveling companion who had boarded the plane earlier, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., be summoned.

Wexler disembarked and discussed the situation with the manager but "struck out the same as I did," Issa said. Wexler could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Issa said he handed Wexler a package and that Air France personnel did not bother checking it when Wexler re-boarded. The package contained a replacement passport and visa for former Rep. Wayne Owens, who now heads the Center for Middle
East Peace and organized the trip, Issa said.

Issa left for the trip to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon the next day -- but not on Air France.

The tour was designed to demonstrate the unity in Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, Issa said. He is a conservative Republican and a Protestant while Wexler is a liberal Democrat and Jewish.

One prominent group that has complained about racial and ethnic profiling, the Arab American Institute, hopes the incident will put a new spotlight on the issue.

"The problem that we're seeing is that while at the top level (of government) people are saying this is not acceptable, at the grass-roots you're having it happen all the time," said Jean Abinader, managing director of the group. "I think any time you can highlight this issue . . . it helps a lot."