A Transportation Security Administration agent verifies a passenger's identification and boarding pass Credit: Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP Images

The young Somali-American man came to the Transportation Security Administration in Minneapolis looking for a job. An official there had another idea: Let’s make him an FBI informant.

Andrew Rhoades was asked to make an approach. Rhoades, an assistant TSA security director, thought the strategy was a bad idea. He believed the man wouldn’t work with federal agents out of fear of a backlash from his people and, if word got out to other Somalis, it could damage an already tenuous relationship with authorities.

The request to recruit the man was one of several examples of racial profiling by TSA supervisors, Rhoades alleges in a new document filed as part of his discrimination complaint against the Department of Homeland Security. In the suit, Rhoades says supervisors retaliated against him for standing up for what he believed was right.

“When I refused to do things that I thought were wrong – legally, ethically, morally – I became an outsider and they started to retaliate against me,” Rhoades said.

The alleged retaliation includes trying to reassign Rhoades to another post in Tampa, Florida, and a poor job performance review for his work with the agency. The TSA, with roughly 60,000 employees, runs security checkpoints in about 450 airports around the country. The agency has faced steady criticism and scrutiny for its screening practices, including the use of behavior detection techniques to try to identify suspicious passengers as well as its own internal troubles stemming from allegations of misconduct, retaliation and dysfunction.

It’s part of a wider pattern of retaliation and cover-up that pushed Rhoades to become one of several whistleblowers who testified last year before Congress, publicly airing agency officials’ boorish behavior, he says.

Rhoades and other TSA whistleblowers disclosed to congressional overseers that top officials recommended each other for large bonuses, targeted senior managers for reassignment and permitted a culture of cover-up in the highest ranks, including sexual harassment, other misconduct and either lying about it or withholding information.

For example, a 2015 internal investigation found that the agency’s top intelligence official should be fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, then lying about it, as Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported last year.

An hour after receiving a proposal to be fired, Joe Salvator was offered instead by the top officials a settlement agreement to demote him for one year without a pay cut, according to an April 26, 2016 letter from the top Republican and ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The letter, which has not made public before, also calls into question how Salvator retained a security clearance even after federal agents concluded he wasn’t totally forthcoming about the relationship with top officials or honest with investigators.

“It remains unclear how or why TSA officials found the discipline included in the settlement to be appropriate given the seriousness of the findings against Mr. Salvator and why TSA officials presented the proposed settlement within an hour of Mr. Salvator’s receipt of the recommended termination,” the letters states.

The letter refers extensively to the agency’s internal report of investigation in the matter and came as the TSA was the subject of congressional investigations and hearings.

Reveal filed in February 2016 a separate Freedom of Information Act request with the TSA for the agency’s internal report on Salvator. But the agency has yet to release records despite having completed its review more than six months ago. The TSA is the slowest of all Homeland Security Department agencies to respond to simple FOIA requests, with an average time of 528 days, more than five times greater than the next slowest agency, according to the federal website FOIA.gov.

A TSA spokesman declined to comment specifically on Rhoades’ case as it’s pending, or on the settlement agreement with Salvator. He added that the agency is working on improving its handling of public requests for information. He added that the agency takes seriously all allegations of inappropriate behavior and does not tolerate misconduct.

“This includes racial profiling, which TSA does not allow,” the spokesman, Michael England, said, adding the agency is cooperating with all investigations. “This is the case regardless of seniority or position.”

Rhoades contends that the agency has known for years that he and others were targeted by officials.

Rhoades knew the Somali man from round-table meetings with other Homeland Security officials, police chiefs and Somali-American leaders. With its swelling population of displaced immigrants, Minneapolis was by 2013 a well-established hotspot for recruiting young Somali-Americans to join terrorist groups.

Rhoades, now 50, wasn’t an intelligence officer, but he saw no reason to think the man posed a threat. The man, who confirmed this account but whose name Reveal has withheld out of concern for his safety, said as much when Rhoades told him about the request. It wasn’t the last time Rhoades was asked to target Somali-Americans, he said.

The agency’s top official in Minneapolis, Cliff Van Leuven, told his deputy David McMahon that Rhoades was “going native” when, in 2014, he visited imams at a local mosque, the complaint says. The term “going native” suggests that Rhoades’ supervisors thought he was overly sympathetic to the Somali religious leaders, Rhoades said.

Both officials have denied that comment or retaliation by reassigning him to a post in Florida.

Van Leuven’s former executive assistant, Marcey Grabenbauer, confirmed in an interview hearing the two top officials make those and other disparaging comments.

“That’s exactly what they said – Drew was ‘going native,’” she said. “That’s just the whole culture they created – any time Drew did anything there’d be snide comments floating around.”

In a 2015 job performance review, Rhoades was asked to provide the names of Somali-Americans leaders who came to the TSA offices because higher-ups wanted to screen them for terrorist ties. Instead, Rhoades turned to internal watchdogs to complain about racial profiling.

The disclosure, made public last year, sparked outrage from local Muslim leaders who said racial profiling erodes trust and led to an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, which Rhoades said he was told by an investigator is awaiting final review from officials in Washington.

Rhoades said that officials’ resistance to accountability and transparency weakens the agency and emboldens leaders who harass and retaliate against employees who speak up.

“The only time the TSA responds and effectively ‘does their job’ is when there’s outside pressure,” Rhoades said. “Otherwise they will stonewall you for years.”

Andrew Becker can be reached at abecker@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerReveal.

 

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.