TSA whistleblower details MSP profiling allegation

Andrew Rhoades
Andrew Rhoades, a senior manager for the Transportation Security Administration at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, says he was told to profile Somali imams and other Somali community members in Minnesota. Photographed April 29, 2016.
Peter Cox | MPR News

On Sep. 12, 2014, Abdirizak Ali came to the office of a TSA official with a group of imams, crying, because he could not travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey Muslims are required to make if they can afford it.

Andrew Rhoades, an assistant federal security director for the TSA, met Ali at his Bloomington office and helped him apply for redress through the DHS Travel Redress Inquiry Program, or DHS TRIP.

"Within a very short period of time," Rhoades said Ali was cleared to continue his trip. "He was able to fly. He was quite happy."

"There's a part of me that also felt bad because he obviously was very conflicted with not being able to fly out and the stigma that his friends thought he was a terrorist," he added. "Of course, they went on to travel to the Hajj, and he could not, so I think it was quite embarrassing for him."

This was one of many times over the last decade, Rhoades said he's helped Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities resolve their travel problems.

If my agency comes after me, so be it.

On Wednesday, Rhoades made national news when he revealed that his supervisor asked him earlier in April to check potential visitors to the TSA offices with the agency's field intelligence officer "to determine if we want them in our office space or meet elsewhere."

Rhoades' boss, David McMahon, had written in a midyear performance evaluation that he reminded Rhoades "that with our current world affairs .... we need to be mindful of those we interact with."

"This gives me the appearance of profiling," Rhoades wrote to McMahon in the performance review, a copy of which he provided to MPR News.

"I am unsure how to engage and have a dialogue with the Somali community to find solutions when we tell certain members that they are not welcome in our offices. Alienating and isolating members of the Somali community can have consequences."

But when asked whether he thought federal security agents engaged in profiling at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Rhoades responded: "I strongly believe that TSA does not profile Muslim travelers at the airport."

He said he's aware of perceptions in the community that Muslims are being singled out when they fly, but he said he hasn't observed that firsthand.

In January, Imam Hassan Mohamud of Minnesota Da'wah Institute came to Rhoades' office, representing an individual who had travel problems.

Rhoades said he managed to resolve the issue, which "mitigated the perception the government is not helping the east African community."

"If this imam was not welcome or was not permitted to come into my office, then obviously this person who got the DHS TRIP redress may not have successfully received that," Rhoades told MPR News.

Imam Mohamud, known as Hassan Jaamici in the Somali community, was recently part of defense team representing Mohamed Farah, a young man facing charges of plotting to travel to Syria to join ISIS.

Questions arose in late March whether Mohamud had tried to persuade the families of the defendants not to take plea offers from the government and urged families to take their sons' cases to trial.

On April 1, the imam and his employer, P. Chinedu Nwaneri, who was acting as Farah's lawyer, withdrew from representing Farah after allegations surfaced that Mohamud taught a cooperating ISIS defendant "the manner in which to pray on a battlefield where one is engaged in jihad."

The imam said he only provided spiritual guidance to the families, not legal advice.

In Rhoades' performance review dated April 8, McMahon, Rhoades's supervisor, wrote that the imam "has recently been removed from a defense team" and that "we need to be mindful of those we interact with."

In February, the imam said he was barred from a tour of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport organized by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, because of his strong opposition to a controversial federal pilot program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), locally known as Building Community Resilience.

A DHS spokesperson said in a statement to MPR News that background checks may be run on individuals before they are allowed to enter a secure location and that the department does not bar people from events for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Even though he was the main Somali liaison for the TSA, Rhoades said he was not told about the airport tour, which was intended to give participants the opportunity to question DHS and Transportation Security Administration officials and get a first-hand look at airport operations and screening procedures.

Complaints of harassment toward Somali-American travelers have gone on for years as federal agencies go on high alert for security risks. The concerns became pronounced in 2008 after the departures of several Twin Cities men for Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab. And today, the focus is on young Minnesota recruits for ISIS in the Middle East.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, whose office is prosecuting the ISIS cases and also spearheading the local CVE program, has brought increased attention to concerns about the airport. He's worked with other federal agencies to reduce hassles that Muslims face while flying.

The TSA said in a statement this week the agency is reviewing the complaint and will take action if a TSA officer acted inappropriately. But the spokesman said it would be unfair to conclude that profiling is common based on a single interaction between an employee and his supervisor.

The TSA did not immediately respond to emails about Rhoades' latest comments.

Rhoades said he told the TSA administrator and the agency's chief counsel about his concerns of racial profiling a week before he went public with the revelation.

"Not one of them responded to my message," he said. "I was left with no choice. I tried to resolve this internally within my agency, and my agency did nothing."

Rhoades said he's not afraid of possible retaliation from his agency or negative fallout from the Somali-American community.

"I believe overwhelmingly the Somali community is going to appreciate my honesty and coming forward and it's going to serve as an example that when there's wrongdoing or when there are allegations of profiling that we are going to deal with it, we are going to admit it and we are going to correct it," Rhoades said. "If my agency comes after me, so be it."

On Monday, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and leaders from the Muslim community will hold a press conference at Abubakar As-Saddique Mosque in Minneapolis responding to Rhoades' statements.

Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken have called on the heads of the DHS and the TSA to launch an investigation into the TSA profile allegations.

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