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Friday, May 16, 2008

Editorial: Sikh group has point about SFO screening

A NATIONAL CIVIL rights organization named the Sikh Coalition has a big problem with security screeners at San Francisco International Airport. The group recently released a report that says SFO is a "worst-case scenario" for turbaned Sikh travelers, claiming this group of passengers is subjected unfairly to second screening as an act of profiling that has little to do with preventing terrorism.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-sided view of how federal security screeners — and not airport employees — are conducting themselves. But there are some disturbing facts emerging that lead us to believe there is something amiss here.

The coalition says that it found 80 of 113 airport screening complaints involved additional searches, and 28 of those 80 took place at SFO.

The Transportation Security Administration altered its approach toward travelers wearing turbans. There was a time when Sikh passengers were forced to remove their turbans; the headgear is an article of faith only to be removed in the home and in private. To Sikhs, that's similar to strip searching.

The TSA backed off and travelers wearing turbans were searched only if they failed to clear metal detectors or other preliminary checks.

Since October, the TSA gave screeners discretion on when to further search travelers wearing bulky headgear, taking into consideration things such as action suspicious and travel itinerary. The coalition claims SFO security staff viewed the new guidelines as a mandate, meaning anyone with a turban that looks funny is subject to more screening.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez claims the high number of complaints at SFO reflect the fact more passengers arrive from India to SFO than any other domestic airport. But later he claims that metal detectors and wands cannot filter out all weapons, such as plastic explosives. He said it's critical to "keep a step ahead" of terrorists.

This kind of mentality is disturbing. With that approach, why don't we second-screen everyone if metal detectors aren't picking up everything?

There's a good chance that once again civil rights are being threatened by paranoid airport security screeners who see a terrorist under every turban.

The truth is that it is impossible, given current technology, to filter out everyone. If there is probable cause for additional searching, that's one thing, but to arbitrarily pull people over for what they wear or what they look like is unacceptable.

We suggest the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration investigate how SFO screeners are conducting themselves, perhaps even an independent probe, and if there's unnecessary screening, it must be eliminated.

Look at other major airports and how they screen without complaints, perhaps there are some good models across the country that SFO can pattern itself after.

We understand this is one coalition's complaint, but it appears to have merit. We hear enough alarms to know an investigation is warranted and a change of policy is needed. [Link]

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