KITV 4 News has learned one of the Transportation Security Administration officers accused of targeting Mexican travelers for extra screening at Honolulu International Airport has been promoted.
(UPDATE: On Friday, Dec. 2, a TSA spokesman said the man's promotion had been postponed, pending the outcome of an investigation.)
That news came as a coalition of civil rights groups called for an audit of the TSA to determine if the agency is guilty of racial profiling, following stories KITV 4 News first reported last month.
Two TSA whistle blowers stepped forward to complain that two screeners in the elite behavior detection program are improperly targeting Mexican travelers at Honolulu Airport, to see if they are in the country illegally.
"They're known as the ?Mexicutioners,?" said one TSA officer, who spoke to KITV 4 News anonymously because TSA managers have threatened to fire officers who speak out about problems at the agency.
Other TSA screeners refer to the man and the woman as the Mexicutioners because employees said they are responsible for the great majority of the arrests of illegal aliens at Honolulu International Airport, most of them from Mexico.
Other TSA employees said 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 a second TSA officer.
Sources told KITV 4 News Thursday that one of the screeners accused is being promoted and will get a raise when he becomes a TSA trainer, traveling the country to teach others in the behavior detection program, which is supposed to single out potential terrorists based on various behaviors. He starts his new assignment this month, sources said. (UPDATE: The TSA said Friday the man's promotion has been delayed until the outcome of an investigation. TSA sources said the he applied for the assignment before the allegations came to light and was notified by management that he got the new job "without the proper vetting.")
The TSA released a statement Thursday saying the allegations KITV 4 News first reported Nov. 7, "resulted in launching an immediate and thorough investigation of the behavior detection program at HNL."
"Pending the completion of the investigation, TSA also provided HNL Behavior Detection Officers refresher training to ensure the program is focused solely on identifying suspicious behaviors," the TSA said.
Extra scrutiny of Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking foreigners has stopped at Honolulu Airport since KITV's first stories aired Nov. 7, sources said. Some TSA managers have told staff in Honolulu that there was no truth to KITV's reports, sources said, claims that were met with amusement since employees say the "Mexicutioner" allegations have been well known among TSA employees for years.
Honolulu TSA employees said the few TSA managers left following firings this summer over a baggage-checking scandal might be in for new scrutiny, since many of them reviewed detailed reports about each arrest of foreign travelers at Honolulu, and they knew full well that most of those being detained were Mexicans or Spanish speakers.
After every arrest, TSA officers compile reports about the incident, along with photos of the arrestee and photocopies of their passport, ID, visa and boarding pass, said TSA employees. All of that information is then forwarded to TSA managers in Honolulu and Washington, D.C., and a summary of the case is uploaded into a TSA computer database in Washington, D.C., TSA employees 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 that a TSA probe 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.
On Thursday, a group of 38 civil rights organizations led by the Sikh Coalition called for an independent audit of the TSA to determine whether the agency engages in racial profiling.
Their letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the groups, which include the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, are "concerned that the latest reports from Hawaii and New Jersey represent the `tip of the iceberg' and that TSA officers are engaged in a wider pattern or practice of profiling racial and religious minorities instead of focusing on actual criminal behavior."
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ, called on the Justice Department to look into the situation, "as it now appears that racial profiling has occurred at airports across the country."
"Attorney General (Eric) Holder should begin a preliminary investigation into whether civil rights laws have been violated," Holt told the Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey.
A spokeswoman for Mexico's consulate in San Francisco told KITV 4 News their investigators are also looking into the claims, trying to located and interview people or families who were deported because of racial profiling in Honolulu.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, wrote a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole Nov. 22, raising concerns about the behavior detection program, in response to KITV's story on the racial profiling allegations.
Thompson, D-Miss., said he wants a suspension of a program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, which involves officers trained in detecting behavior, such as facial expressions, of those who intend to do harm.
Thompson said the Honolulu allegations, along with media accounts in June of behavior detection officers at Newark Liberty International Airport targeting minority passengers, raise concerns about the "scientific validity" of the program.
"These incidents and the failure of both training and supervision to prevent the practice of racial profiling are clear indications that more research, evaluation and testing must be completed before behavior detection can be successfully integrated at aviation security checkpoints," Thompson wrote.
"TSA's behavior detection program in no way encourages or tolerates profiling," the TSA's statement said. "Profiling is not an effective form of security and our security officers are trained to treat every passenger with dignity and respect."
Thompson gave the TSA until Dec. 16 to provide information including the agency's internal report on Honolulu's SPOT program.
Among the information he requested are specific steps taken to address the racial profiling allegations at the Honolulu airport and a list of countries of origin for each foreign national arrested as a result of a referral from TSA behavior detection officers in Honolulu. The TSA had refused to provide KITV with a list of the countries of origin for foreigners arrested at HNL.
The TSA said it will respond directly to the congressman.
Honolulu airport is where dozens of employees, including five managers, were fired or suspended this year after an investigation found workers did not screen checked bags for explosives. It was the single largest personnel action for misconduct in the TSA's history. Several of the managers are now appealing their firings, sources said.
The agency began an investigation at the end of 2010 after two Honolulu employees told officials that thousands of bags weren't checked properly or screened for traces of explosives. The probe, which included interviews with more than 100 employees and lasted for months, determined some checked bags during morning shift at the airport were not properly screened.
?I am troubled by the allegations of racial profiling at Honolulu Airport, especially in light out of similar incidents occurring on the U.S. mainland," said U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, D-Hawaii, a senior member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which oversees TSA.
"TSA Behavior Detection officers must target passengers based on their suspicious actions, not because of their race, ethnicity or national origin. TSA must properly train all Behavior Detection officers and ensure that unlawful racial profiling does not occur at airports in Hawaii or across the nation," Akaka said.
"These allegations also raise the question of whether our scarce homeland security funding should be devoted to an expansion of the BDO program. I will be closely examining whether or not TSA?s BDO program is an effective anti-terrorism tool,? Akaka said.
In a letter to Thompson in October, Pistole, the TSA administrator, said a recent study shows that behavior detection screening is nine times more effective than random screening for identifying potential high-risk passengers.
"As part of their basic training, BDOs who perform SPOT receive cultural awareness training and specific instruction with emphasis on the (Department of Homeland Security) policy against racial or ethnic profiling," Pistole wrote. "If allegations of profiling arise, TSA immediately conducts an investigation and takes corrective action as warranted."
"Individuals who are illegal aliens will often use fraudulent documents to gain access to the sterile area of an airport because they do not have the required identification necessary to do so otherwise. BDOs often discover fraudulent documents during the secondary screening process as part of their standard operating procedures," said Pistole.
Pistole has defended SPOT as part of the agency?s turn toward a "risk-based," rather than "one-size-fits all" approach to screening. But the program has drawn criticism since a May 2010 Congressional audit found that immigration violations accounted for 39 percent of all SPOT-related arrests, while none were linked to terrorism.
KITV's stories Nov. 7 highlighted other alleged questionable behavior at Honolulu's TSA operation.
Whistleblowers claimed one of the managers of Honolulu's behavior detection program tested positive for cocaine in a random drug test this summer, and he's been re-assigned but is still on the job because he's needed to testify in some personnel cases.
That's a double standard for management, sources said, because all other TSA employees are automatically fired if they test positive for drugs.
TSA officers who asked for anonymity 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. That TSA screener was responsible for seizing as much as $1 million in undeclared cash on various passengers, until his contract at DEA moved out of town, sources said. Those cases amounted to warrantless searches, TSA employees said.