TSA Whistleblowers: HNL Screeners Target Mexicans

By Keoki Kerr
Published On: Nov 01 2011 03:25:43 AM HST
Updated On: Nov 08 2011 03:28:19 AM HST
HONOLULU -

Two members of an elite Transportation Security Administration unit at Honolulu International Airport target Mexican travelers for extra screening so often they are referred to as ?Mexicutioners? by their co-workers, according to two whistleblowers who came forward to tell their stories to KITV 4 News. The TSA said it?s investigating the allegations.

Honolulu, like 160 other airports nationwide, has a unit of specially trained TSA screeners who are supposed to assess behaviors of passengers to determine if they're suspicious and may be planning some kind of terrorist attack.

"The program is geared toward ? looking for terrorists," said Officer A, one of two Honolulu TSA officers who spoke to KITV 4 News but asked to keep their identities secret to avoid discipline for speaking out.

The two officers shared information about the team of roughly 32 of Honolulu?s Behavior Detection Officers, known as BDOs. The TSA has about 700 officers in Honolulu.

"The BDO program is supposed to identify passengers exhibiting suspicious behaviors," said Officer B.

Problem is, the whistleblowers said, two Honolulu TSA behavior detection officers are improperly targeting Mexican travelers to see if they are in the United States illegally.

"They're known as the ?Mexicutioners,?" said Officer A. "Honolulu is known for having a few 'Mexicutioners' and they know who they are and they know what they do."

Other TSA screeners refer to the man and woman as the Mexicutioners, because employees say they are responsible for the great majority of the arrests of illegal aliens at Honolulu International Airport, most of them from Mexico.

A few other Honolulu TSA employees and attorneys for some recently fired TSA workers who told KITV 4 News the same thing: it's well-known that just two TSA screeners target Mexican travelers in Honolulu to appear productive, even though their main priority is supposed to be stopping passengers who could be a security threat.

"We're not in the business of going after illegals. We're supposed to be finding potential terrorists, threats to aviation security," said Officer B. "They have been abusing the program to make a mark for themselves."

In response, TSA spokesman Nico Melendez released a statement that said, "The allegations raised regarding the Behavior Detection Officer program at Honolulu International Airport have resulted in an ongoing review of screening operations at HNL. As such, TSA is unable to provide comment until the review is complete."

KITV asked the TSA for a detailed list of the countries of origin for each foreign national arrested as a result of a referral from TSA BDOs in Honolulu, reports that managers in Honolulu routinely review after each case and send to TSA headquarters in Washington D.C. The arrest figures are entered into several national TSA databases, sources said. But the TSA declined to release that data, citing the ?review? that?s under way.

The TSA?s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has launched an inspector general?s audit of operations at TSA Honolulu following the firing of several dozen TSA screeners here last summer in a baggage checking scandal. Those firings were the result of a separate six-month TSA investigation.

Behavior detection officers are supposed to mingle with passengers in line at TSA checkpoints and see if they exhibit nervous behavior, but TSA employees said the two accused screeners are making up suspicious behaviors to justify extra screening of people from Mexico, which is known for having easily available fake identification documents.

"They are fabricating behaviors. They're making them up -- the behaviors don't exist -- in order to get to the point where they can arrest these people," said Officer A.

"Racial profiling is not an effective form of providing security and our security officers are trained to treat every passenger with dignity and respect," Melendez, of the TSA said.

"Sounds like racial profiling to me. Something is wrong when you have those types of statistics," said Daphne Barbee-Wooten, a civil rights attorney representing a former TSA manager Raymond Ware. Ware is suing the agency after he was fired in an unrelated case -- in which dozens of TSA screeners were found to have not screened checked baggage for explosives last year.

"You can't target anybody because of their ethnicity, the way they look, the way they talk, their nationality, their sex, their age. You can't do that because that's racial stereotyping and that will not lead you to find a terrorist," Barbee-Wooten said.

Similar allegations at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey caused the TSA to mount an investigation last year, demoting a TSA manager and retraining its entire behavior detection workforce there.

The Star-Ledger newspaper reported a TSA investigation found that some TSA employees in Newark referred to certain colleagues as "Mexican hunters" because they targeted air passengers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic for extra scrutiny.

Back in Honolulu, TSA officers also accused one behavior detection officer of using inside information from a friend at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to repeatedly stop people suspected of carrying large amounts of cash through Honolulu airport, possibly as part of the drug trade.

They said one TSA screener was responsible for seizing as much as $1 million in undeclared cash on various passengers, until his contact at DEA moved out of town.

The DEA knows that the TSA has what's called "implied consent" at security checkpoints, meaning when you go through the checkpoint, you consent to having your bags and your body checked, the whistleblowers said.

"They were using that loophole and the contact in the BDO program as a way to get into the passenger's bag and find the money without having to get a search warrant," said Officer B.

Asked if the program has ever stopped a suspected terrorist in Honolulu since the program began in April of 2007, Officer B said, ?Never. Not Once.?

CRITICAL GAO AUDIT

A 2010 federal audit of the TSA's behavior detection program across the country found during its entire brief history the program has never resulted in the arrest of a terrorist or someone planning to engage in some kind of terrorist activity anywhere in the United States.

The Governmental Accountability Office audit published in May of 2010 found illegal aliens made up the biggest category of arrests from TSA cases -- 39 percent of them across the country -- between 2004 and 2008.

The audit also said the TSA did not scientifically validate the behavior observation program before it started following the 9-11 attacks.

The GAO auditors said the TSA should study whether the program -- with an annual budget of more than $200 million -- is a good use of taxpayer money or whether random extra screening would be just as effective.

SLEEPING ON THE JOB

A few years back, TSA employees at Honolulu said two of those highly-trained behavior detection officers were caught sleeping on the overnight shift.

"Two officers had brought in cots and pillows, and were caught sleeping on the job by management," said Officer A. "Nothing was done about it.?

The two whistleblowers said the two screeners caught sleeping on the overnight shift were never disciplined.

Even worse, they claim, some years later, several other overnight-shift behavior detection officers could not be found during their shift so the TSA simply stopped staffing the overnight shift, meaning no BDOs work the overnight hours anymore.

?They just completely got rid of it,? Officer A said.

DRUG TESTING: DOUBLE STANDARD?

Another allegation: one of the managers of Honolulu's behavior detection program tested positive for cocaine in a random drug test this summer.

Whistleblowers said he's been re-assigned but is still on the job because he's needed to testify in some personnel cases.

"Word throughout the airport is that they need to keep him for testimony in various EEO investigations," said Officer B, referring to Equal Employment Opportunity cases, which can allege sexual harassment, unfair treatment based on an employee?s gender or race, and other complaints.

TSA employees said that's a double standard, because all other employees are automatically fired if they test positive for drugs.

"It makes you embarrassed to work at the TSA, especially at Honolulu," said Officer B.

Honolulu TSA employees have filed 12 EEO complaints against their supervisors since 2009, four of which were sexual harassment complaints, a TSA official said.

The TSA said its leaders in Honolulu are taking ?proactive measures? to improve security operations, the work environment and staff morale.

?They have conducted town hall sessions, surveys and meetings with the workforce to identify issues/concerns and are taking necessary measure to address these problem areas,? a TSA official said.

Glen Kajiyama, TSA Honolulu?s federal security director, was fired June 3, along with four other TSA managers and at least 24 screeners as a result of a probe that found TSA employees failed to properly screen checked luggage for explosives for months. TSA employees complained they were pressured by managers to rush security checks of bags in spite of a lack of screening equipment and staff shortages.

Kajiyama and three other managers are appealing their firings to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in Washington, D.C., according to sources familiar with the cases. The Merit Systems Protection Board handles appeals of TSA managers and most other federal employees.

A fifth TSA manager fired after the baggage probe, William Gulledge, the former assistant federal security director for screening, chose to retire, a source said.

Stanford Miyamoto, TSA's deputy area director in Honolulu, was named acting federal security director in June.

Related Stories:

Sept. 16, 2011 - Some TSA HNL Employees Escape Firing In Baggage Scandal

Aug. 19, 2011 - TSA Manager Targeted For Firing Speaks Out

Aug. 12, 2011 - Honolulu TSA Managers Admit 'Dictatorial' Atmosphere

Aug. 5, 2011 - Inspector General Probe Headed For HNL TSA

June 18, 2011 - Most Fired, Suspended TSA Officers Will Appeal

June 10, 2011 - TSA To Fire 36 HNL Workers, Suspend 12

March 1, 2011 - At Least 27 Honolulu TSA Officers Under Probe

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