Somali-American community leaders in the Twin Cities voiced dismay Wednesday after a Minneapolis manager for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) alleged that they have been targets of racial profiling.
Andrew Rhoades, an assistant federal security director for the TSA, said in congressional testimony that he was pressured by his supervisor earlier this month to profile Somali imams and community members visiting his Twin Cities office.
The allegation sparked a call by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., for an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, of which TSA is a part. In a letter to Jeh Johnson, secretary of the department, Ellison cited a New York Times report Wednesday that the TSA supervisor wanted to screen Somali-Americans through national security databases for terrorist ties — “by the same office designed to address their complaints.”
The department’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is investigating the claims.
In a statement, TSA said it doesn’t tolerate racial profiling.
“TSA takes allegations of racial profiling seriously. We are reviewing this complaint and will take appropriate action if there is evidence that any TSA officer acted inappropriately.
“However, it would be unfair and irresponsible to infer or conclude that profiling is a common TSA practice based upon a single interaction between one employee and his supervisor,” the statement concludes.
Rhoades told lawmakers during testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he resisted his supervisor’s order. “Those in the community of Minneapolis know I would never betray their trust by profiling them.”
Even as some cautioned that Rhoades’ claims have not been confirmed, Somali leaders said Wednesday they give further credence to longstanding complaints that community members are subject to heavy screening and harassment by the TSA at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The TSA, with encouragement from U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger in Minneapolis, has worked to address such concerns in the past year, bringing in a “mobile redress team” to meet with community members.
The allegations come at a time when the government has set out to win Somali community buy-in for efforts to prevent extremist violence and the departure of young people to join radical groups.
“These accusations are likely to confirm what Somalis in Minnesota know already — that they are the target of racial profiling and implicit bias by law enforcement,” said Mohamud Noor, head of the nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.
Jaylani Hussein, the head of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Minnesota, said Somalis view Rhoades as an approachable point person who has actively reached out to the community and tried to resolve grievances.
An Army veteran, Rhoades joined TSA in 2002, and his current position involves establishing relationships with the East African community in Minnesota, according to his biography.
While he said his supervisor accused him of “going native” after attending a meeting at a local mosque, he did not elaborate on the profiling charges during the hearing. He could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.
“Even if we’re not flying, we’ll be subject to surveillance and profiling,” said Hussein, who is Somali-American. “This is exactly what the terrorists want — for the Muslim community to be feared and seen as suspect.”
In 2014, the federal government chose Minneapolis as one of three cities to host a pilot project to counter radical recruitment, an effort led by Luger. Luger’s office has since charged 10 young Somali-American men, accusing them of plotting travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Most of the accused have pleaded guilty.
Jibril Afyare, a project supporter, said the TSA allegations, if proven, would deal a major blow to efforts at building trust between the community and federal law enforcement agencies. Afyare is the spokesman for the Somali-American Task Force, a group that provided feedback and assistance to Luger’s initiative, arguing it would give a major boost to programs that engage and help Somali youngsters.
“This really undermines our continuing cooperation and collaboration with our government, whether it’s TSA, FBI or the U.S. attorney’s office,” he said.
Luger’s office declined to comment on the allegations before the investigation is complete.
Rhoades and two other TSA workers testified at Wednesday’s hearing, which was designed to gather information about alleged mismanagement and misconduct at the agency.
Rhoades testified about TSA’s alleged practice of “directed reassignments,” or unwanted job transfers intended to punish employees who speak their minds. Last year, he was involuntarily transferred to Tampa after being accused of leaking TSA security breaches to the media — an allegation he denied.
In April 2015, the Office of Special Counsel, the government’s independent investigative agency, blocked Rhoades’ reassignment, and TSA later rescinded the transfer.
On Wednesday, he described TSA’s corporate culture as “akin to the movie ‘Animal House,’ while the relationship between our headquarters and the field is best depicted in the TV series ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”
Staff writer Allison Sherry in Washington contributed to this report.