Moral Low Ground


The ‘Mexican Hunters’: Newark Airport TSA Anti-Terror Screeners Aggressively Profiled Latinos

A special unit of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport who were supposed to detect suspicious behavior among travelers instead engaged in rabid racial profiling so aggressive and so frequent that their co-workers referred to them as the “Mexican Hunters.”

So says an internal federal report analyzed by the Newark Star Ledger. The members of this unit, known as behavior detection officers (BDOs) were trained to spot certain behavioral traits that might indicate an elevated potential for terrorist activity. These passengers were then to be singled out for extra scrutiny.

But instead, Newark BDOs targeted Mexican and Dominican passengers, checking their visas and passports and subjecting them to  searches, pat-downs, interrogation and referrals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). BDOs concocted fake behavioral indicators to conceal their blatant and unauthorized profiling.

This was all ordered by management.

“It became a joke in the unit, these individuals were called the great Mexican hunters,” Paul Animone, a Newark BDO, told investigators in the report analyzed by the Star Ledger. “I did not agree or did not go along with these types of referrals, but if I was teamed up with one of these BDOs, I would go along with the referral and perform the bag check. When I disagreed with these referrals and brought it to the attention of the BDO managers, I was told by the BDO managers that I was not a team player.”

The “Boston Report,” as it is known because it was written by TSA investigators from Boston, said that Mexicans and Dominicans were targeted as an easy way to increase the number of referrals by the Newark BDO unit to make it appear more productive, even if it meant that anti-terrorism efforts would suffer as a result of this major distraction.

BDOs very strongly felt that there was a quota system in place and that their promotions depended on them referring as many Hispanics as possible. Indeed, the report says that George Schultz, a manager, even ordered BDOs to manipulate the point system used to assess threatening behavior in order to snare more victims.

Barbara Bonn Powell, Newark’s federal security director at the time the alleged discrimination occurred in 2008 and 2009, was also named in the report as enforcing the perception that BDOs were expected to meet referral quotas.

The TSA, while admitting that certain policies were “overstepped,” says it is opposed to racial profiling and that the Newark situation has been taken care of.

“TSA does not profile passengers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion,” TSA spokesman Lisa Farbstein told the Star-Ledger. “The SPOT Program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique) was specifically designed to use behavioral criteria indicative of an individual possibly engaged in criminal and/or terrorist activity — race, ethnicity or religion are not considered.”

As for the errant Newark BDOs, “eighteen months ago, TSA took immediate remedial action and retrained the entire behavior detection workforce at Newark,” Farbstein said.

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