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Terror Probe Changes Face of Racial Profiling Debate

In the face of changing perspectives on the issue of racial profiling, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday tossed out an appeal from a group of African-Americans who argued they were unfairly singled out by police.

Though the case isn't related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the decision is significant in a climate in which some are reconsidering their attitude toward using race as a criterion to find criminals.

"Political correctness I think is gonna' be put off to the side for a while," said former FBI agent Jack Trimarco. "And it should be."

In the case in question, the Supreme Court ruled not to hear the claims of a group of young blacks in Oneonta, N.Y., who say they were rounded up or questioned indiscriminately after a 1992 burglary attack on an elderly woman.

Opponents of racial profiling claim officers violate the Constitution's guarantee of universal, equal legal protection when they target suspects based on skin color or other racial identifiers.

But following the Sept. 11 attacks, what suddenly seemed outrageous now seems acceptable — at least when it involves people of Middle Eastern origin.

Even some black Americans, who have complained the loudest about racial profiling, are reconsidering their stand. A recent Gallup poll found that Africans-Americans are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to support profiling and tight airport security checks for Arabs and Arab-Americans since the Sept. 11 disaster.

The poll, reported in Sunday's Boston Globe, reported that 71 percent of blacks — as opposed to 57 percent of whites — believe Arabs and Arab-Americans should "undergo special, more intensive security checks before boarding airplanes."

The federal government also has done an about-face.

Earlier this summer, U.S. officials told airlines that conducting extra checks on passengers of Arab origin was a violation of the passengers' civil rights. Also, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta ordered a federal investigation into complaints by Arab-Americans that they were being unfairly targeted by security screenings.

But now federal agents are detaining hundreds of Arab-Americans — a practice they call "terrorist profiling."

Civil rights attorney Steven Cohen says the feds are overreaching in their investigation. "Every mosque is being visited — they are getting membership lists and trailing people," he said. "People are being intimidated.

"We should step back from this horrible profiling," he said. "It will stain the American body politic for generations to come."

Trimarco and others say the FBI is merely doing its job.

"The FBI is simply looking for anyone that might be able to give them information that is critical to the investigation," Trimarco said.

The tactic, also being called "ethnic profiling" or "country-of-origin profiling" instead of racial profiling, is being defended as appropriate and necessary to the investigation.

"From what we know about these cells, they are extremely closed, secretive, suspicious of people on the outside," said Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "I think it would be a grotesque misuse of law enforcement resources to be scrutinizing Southern Baptists, African-Americans or Minnesota Lutherans with the same rigor as we're looking at Arab-Americans or Arabs."

The FBI denies scrutinizing every Arab or Muslim in the country, but confirms that it is checking out each incoming call and tip.

Nationwide, the agency has detained or arrested nearly 500 people in its criminal investigation into the attacks, all of them Middle Eastern or Muslim or both.

"The FBI is profiling terrorists," said Trimarco. "We have a horrific crime that ... was committed by terrorists who may have been Arab or Muslim. If it were committed by another group — for instance, the IRA — the FBI would be out interviewing a lot of people with blue eyes.

"We're certainly not condemning a race, an ethnic background or a religion for this act," he said. "However, that is where the information's going to come from."

While a dozen states have passed laws designed to monitor or eliminate racial profiling, a recent Fox News poll shows that nearly 70 percent of respondents support the practice as a method of curbing terrorism.

The Justice Department was set to release a comprehensive review of racial profiling this month. Now officials say the report is on hold indefinitely, with resources diverted to the war on terror.

Fox News' Claudia Cowan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.