Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Religious, minority and civil rights activists are asking Homeland Security officials to screen their own airport screeners using video cameras to check whether passengers are being subjected to bias or profiling.

“We believe such controls are critical to ensuring that our nation’s [screeners] are focused squarely on security threats and not distracted by any personal bias,” the organizations said in a letter this week to Kip Hawley, director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The letter was signed by several groups including the Sikh Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Asian American Justice Center, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council of La Raza.

The activists say recent policy changes give transportation security officers more discretion to pull aside passengers for additional screening that results in “an unchecked ability to engage in racial, religious, ethnic or national origin profiling of air travelers.”

The policies they cite include the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program — which uses behavior to identify high-risk passengers — the discretionary lighter ban and the policy for screening bulky clothing.

TSA officials have consistently said that screeners do not profile or select passengers for additional screening based on perceived race or religion.

TSA spokesman Christopher White said today “profiling is not acceptable and it is plainly not good for security.”

“One need look no further than Timothy McVeigh, Jose Padilla, or recent events in Iraq or Sri Lanka to know there is no one face of terrorism,” Mr. White said. “That’s why we don’t engage in any way, shape or form of profiling.”

Mr. White said there is no screening for lighters anymore, and that anyone wearing bulky clothes, whether its blue jeans or sweatshirts, may be subjected to additional screening.

“For individuals in bulky clothing, the natural contour of the body is not visible and we may conduct additional screening simply to determine if there are items hidden underneath,” Mr. White said.

Neha Singh, advocacy director for the Sikh Coalition, says the San Francisco International Airport “has a reputation of pulling aside all Sikh travelers who wear turbans, though this is in direct contradiction to the TSA policy.”

The Sikh religion comes from the Punjab region in India, and its followers are mandated to cover their heads with turbans or scarves.

With nearly 50,000 screeners nationwide, the civil rights and minority groups say “it is unrealistic to believe that a policy created in Washington is being implemented flawlessly on the ground.”

The groups also said, “Broad individual discretion allotted to screeners also allows them to bring individual biases to the screening process.”

“This places our communities and all Americans at risk because individual [screener] biases may distract from actual security threats at the airport,” the groups said.

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