MINNEAPOLIS — A Transportation Security Administration manager here said he was instructed by his supervisor to provide the names of Somali-American leaders visiting the agency’s local office so they could be screened against national security databases for terrorist ties, a disclosure that quickly drew accusations of racial profiling.
In a midyear performance evaluation, David McMahon, the supervisor for Andrew Rhoades, an assistant federal security director, wrote that he had advised Mr. Rhoades to check potential visitors to the agency’s offices with the field intelligence officer to determine “if we want them in our office space or meet elsewhere.”
Mr. McMahon, a deputy federal security director, wrote that he “reminded employee that with our current world affairs that we need to be mindful of those we interact with.”
Mr. Rhoades, who works with Somalis in Minneapolis, said he considered the remarks racial profiling and reported the incident to the T.S.A.’s Office of the Chief Counsel and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He has also contacted members of the Minnesota congressional delegation and the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that protects federal employees from reprisal.
“I have never been asked to give the names of anyone else who visited the office to the intelligence officer,” Mr. Rhoades said.
The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties said on Tuesday that it had opened an investigation into the allegations.
In a statement, the T.S.A., an agency in the Department of Homeland Security, said it did not tolerate racial profiling.
“We are reviewing this complaint and will take appropriate action if there is evidence that any T.S.A. officer acted inappropriately,” the agency said. “However, it would be unfair and irresponsible to infer or conclude that profiling is a common T.S.A. practice based upon a single interaction between one employee and his supervisor.”
The disclosure by Mr. Rhoades has prompted accusations of racial profiling from some members of the Somali community, who say they have a long history of mistreatment by T.S.A. at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. It also threatens to undermine efforts by the Obama administration to fight against the recruitment of Somali youth in the United States by the Islamic State and other extremists groups.
Dozens of young men have left Minnesota to join terrorist groups, according to law enforcement officials. Several men who were accused of trying to leave the country to join the Islamic State were indicted by a federal grand jury in Minneapolis in October.
Somali leaders acknowledge that the arrest of young men trying to join terrorist groups like the Islamic State is a cause for alarm, but they say that law enforcement agencies should not use that as an excuse to subject the entire community to additional scrutiny.
Minneapolis is one of several pilot cities for the Obama administration’s programs to counter violent extremism by providing money and training to help communities whose youth are targeted by terrorist groups.
Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, visited the city in 2014 and met with Somalis to discuss, among other things, the issue of racial profiling. Many shared stories with him of their experience while traveling through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
T.S.A. officials in Minneapolis say they try to strike a balance between properly screening for security threats while at the same time avoiding the perception of racial.
Officials said they have hosted Somali elders at the airport to explain how the agency carries out its mission and attended community meetings to resolve grievances. T.S.A. officials say they have also recruited Somalis as screeners and for other jobs. And the agency has assigned people like Mr. Rhoades to help address problems like people having trouble getting on a flight, or those who feel they have been singled out for extra screening.
Somali leaders give the agency credit for its outreach, but they say the instructions by a T.S.A. manager to pass on the names of those seeking redress at the agency’s offices to an intelligence officer is a setback.
“Why would you want to check the terror watch list for people who are coming to your office to seek help?” said Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble, president of the World Peace Organization in Minneapolis, who has spoken at the White House and serves on several local law enforcement task forces to counter violent extremism, including one led by the United States attorney for Minnesota, Andrew M. Luger. “You are assuming that they have done something wrong.”
Other leaders say the disclosure will only fuel the anger many Somalis feel toward law enforcement agencies. And, they say, it will create even more skepticism about the federal government’s multimillion-dollar community outreach programs to fight terrorist recruitment.
“It’s damaging,” said Jaylani Hussein, a Somali-American who is executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They want Somali leaders to be a part of task forces and have conversations about countering extremism, but they treat everyone like a suspect.”
Minnesota’s growing Somali-American population has received increased attention from law enforcement and intelligence agencies in their counterpropaganda battles with the Islamic State, which has aggressively recruited young Somalis.
Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, said he found troubling the local T.S.A.’s suggestion to potentially screen people who visit its office seeking help. He has written a letter to Mr. Johnson calling for an investigation.
“The Somali-American community, and all Minnesotans, deserve to know if T.S.A. officials are engaging in racial, ethnic or religious profiling,” Mr. Ellison said in a statement.
The Minneapolis episode is not the first time the T.S.A. has been accused of racial profiling by employees. In 2012, more than 30 federal officers at Logan International Airport in Boston told officials that a behavioral detection program intended to spot potential terrorists by observing their mannerisms had relied on racial profiling, targeting not only people from the Middle East but also blacks, Hispanics and other members of minority groups.
The latest accusations come as the T.S.A. is under fire from Congress for retaliating against whistle-blowers at the agency who have spoken out about security lapses at a number of airports. Dozens of employees have been reassigned, demoted, investigated or fired for reporting lapses or misconduct by senior managers, charges that were later upheld by whistle-blower protection agencies, records show.
On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing to examine misconduct at the agency. The committee has spoken with several former and current T.S.A. staff members and has requested hundreds of documents. Mr. Rhoades is expected to be one of three T.S.A. officials who will testify.
In Minnesota, Mr. Rhoades is being praised by some Somalis for making the exchange with his supervisor public.
“It is what many of us have long suspected,” said Omar Jamal, a community activist. “Now we have confirmation.”
Author: Liban Farah
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