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Mineta Strikes Again

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has made another controversial decision that seems to place politics and political correctness above national security. Mineta, President Bush’s only Democrat in the Cabinet and a holdover from the Clinton administration, has steadfastly opposed ethnic profiling as a tool in airport security screening. He has described it as “surrendering to actions of hate and discrimination.” So grandmothers and nuns get frisked, while young Arab males sail through security.

He then blocked efforts to arm airline pilots, but left it to the White House to express the administration’s fear of “guns loose on airplanes.” Mineta and the administration prefer more reliance on federal sky marshals, stronger cockpit doors, and better screening. But that seems hollow in light of recent undercover tests that found that fake weapons, knives, and explosives got by airport security screeners much of the time. At the Los Angeles airport, scene of the recent terrorist attack on an El Al ticket counter, such weapons passed through security undetected 41% of the time. Given the administration’s policy on shooting down hijacked airlines, it seems that Mineta would prefer having an F-16 shoot down a fully-loaded airliner rather than permit pilots to defend their cockpit.

Mineta’s opponents now accuse him of playing politics with the nation’s airport security screening program. Under the new Aviation and Transportation Security Act, the feds are slated to take over airport security by next November. Congressional Republicans, however, inserted a measure that established a private security screening pilot program to test whether contract security companies could match the levels of performance required for the federalized force. That program, run by the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA), is to be tested at a Category X airport, the largest or “most at risk” airports in the country, and other smaller airports around the country. When first announced, New York’s JFK was the only Category X airport to apply. Cong. Gary Ackerman, whose district encompasses JFK Airport and the New York Port Authority, proposed using retired New York City police and other federal, state and local law enforcement officers as airport security screeners. Retired multilingual officers, former detectives, and other law enforcement professionals had already been lined up.

But according to a press spokeman for Cong. Ackerman, midway through the application process, the TSA rejected JFK’s proposal and required the airport to reapply. On June 18, it announced the selection of five airports to participate in the pilot program, but only one Category X location. JFK’s application was rejected in favor of San Francisco, although TSA provided no information on the selection criteria other than claiming that San Francisco offered the best proposal and could meet the deadlines for starting the program. Mineta has yet to respond to Ackerman’s letter and phone calls requesting a more detailed explanation.

Opponents of Mineta’s decision suspect that local politics were the deciding factor in the selection of San Francisco. The San Jose Mercury reported in May that Mineta was under intense pressure from San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Bay Area civil rights activists to preserve security screening jobs of nearly 800 employees at the San Francisco airport. The new act requires screeners to be U.S. citizens and the private security firms to be U.S. owned. Bay area activists are reported to have said they consider the congressional mandates to be “a serious action against our immigrants and their civil rights.” They accused Mineta, who represented the South Bay area in Congress, of not doing enough to help the predominantly Filipino employees of the firm that currently holds the screening contract at the airport. Labor activists threatened to “paralyze the airports” if the legislation is not altered.

After the decision was announced, the airport promptly declared that it would retain the current security firm and most of the current screeners. But that would violate the new statute since the firm responsible for airport screening, Huntleigh USA Corp., is Dutch-owned. Huntleigh assumed the contract after Argenbright Security was fired in the aftermath of a security incident in February. Mineta got around the citizenship requirement by giving the screeners until November to apply for U.S. citizenship. Local union officials believe that even that deadline will be extended. Senator Diane Feinstein has introduced legislation that would extend the deadline for obtaining citizenship for the Filipino workers.

Mineta’s spokesman rejects allegations of political pressure as “ridiculous.” That’s a word that comes up frequently in connection with the “most visible secretary” in the history of the Transportation Department. Former Congressman Robert K. Dornan says that Mineta’s opposition to arming pilots and profiling in airport security screening is “in defiance of common sense and offensively ridiculous.”