A sidebar to the story of the ISIS-affiliated Somali men convicted on terrorism charges last year in federal district court in Minneapolis: one of the men who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution had worked on the tarmac at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and could have done serious harm. So had the one who turned informant and was never charged in the case. When his FBI interlocutors persuaded him to turn, he had a question for them: “Can I get my job at the airport back?”
That’s not all. In his March 29, 2016 Star Tribune story, Stephen Montemayor reported in passing that local imams and Muslim “community leaders” had received a “behind-the-scenes security tour” in February last year at MSP. Montemayor mentioned the tour when he noted that Hassan Mohamud—also known as “Sheikh Hassan,” an imam working as a legal assistant for one of the defendants—had been “uninvited” from the tour.
What was that tour for Muslims only all about?
I asked MSP spokesman Patrick Hogan, who Hogan referred me to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A TSA spokesman denied knowledge (wrongly, as it turned out). Several calls to CBP led me to Midwest CBP spokesman Kristoffer Grogan, in Michigan. Grogan explained by email:
Per our conversation U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conducted a community engagement tour at the St. Paul International Airport on February 18th. The tour included roughly 20 community members from the greater Minneapolis area and was facilitated through the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The tour showed the participants the process that all arriving passengers go through when arriving at the Federal Inspection Services (FIS) area at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. CBP conducts these types of tours regularly as part of our outreach efforts to improve ties between CBP and our community members.
The tour was conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection leadership assigned to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. I currently do not have a list of those who attended the tour. You would need to reach out to the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for that information.
I followed up with calls and inquiries to the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the number provided by Grogan. I received an unilluminating response from DHS press secretary Marsha Catron, who advised me of the department’s procedure for submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. Catron didn’t respond to further inquiries.
Getting information about the tour from DHS has been like pulling teeth without benefit of anesthetic. After two FOIA requests, two appeals of the responses to my FOIA requests, and one FOIA lawsuit filed in federal district court here, I have received 78 heavily redacted pages about the 2016 tour. (I’ve posted the documents on Scribd.) Two pages listing the tour participants and their nationalities are blacked out. The text of the invitation, however, was provided:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would like to invite you to participate in a tour of the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport as part of our ongoing efforts to engage with community leaders and members. During the event, participants will be provided with a step-by-step tour of our operations, designed to offer a greater understanding of airport processes and procedures. Throughout the event, we will discuss traveler expectations, rights, and procedures. Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions of representatives from DHS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration. . . . Participants will be met by airport officials and led into the secure area of the airport. . . .
Please note that this event will be closed to the press and participants will not be allowed to take pictures or video recordings during the event.
I wrote to DHS, seeking a spokesman or officer who would give me background on the rationale for the tours. I heard back again from Grogan, who responded: “Every year CBP conducts numerous events and programs around the country in which civic, religious and community leaders, as well as interested residents, are afforded an inside look at how CBP secures the border at and between ports of entries. CBP is committed to fostering a positive relationship within the communities we live and serve.”
One such group, it turns out, is the immigration-law section of the Minnesota State Bar Association, whose members I joined for the tour given on October 12 by Minneapolis CBP Chief Brian Nevanen and Officer Abby Hair at MSP. Walking us through the international-arrivals area on the west end of MSP, the CBP officers explained the current processing of passengers arriving at the airport for admission to the United States. The officers took us to an area that I hadn’t seen before, where passengers get interviewed by officers. The immigration lawyers asked technical questions about forms, detention and removal procedures, attorney-client communications, and other such matters. Nevanen and Hair answered every question, including one asking about the officers’ strangest experience. Answer: an arriving physician slit his throat awaiting an interview (his life was saved). We received some useful advice regarding the CBP’s protection of trademarks. CBP officers seize trademarked product knockoffs, we were told, but one knockoff per trademark is allowed. (Rolex is an exception: none is permitted.)
In truth, the lawyers’ tour only occasionally escaped the mundane. The documents produced in response to my FOIA request, however, show the lawyers’ tour to be something like a poor man’s version of the 2016 edition given to local Somalis. They received the deluxe version.
Invitations to take the February 18, 2016, tour went out to selected imams and Somali community leaders. It was a big event: unlike the bar association tour, the Somali tour included TSA representatives to provide an overview of their operations and processes and address what the memo calls “stakeholder community questions.” After the tour, “community members . . . shared comments about their experiences with DHS” at a roundtable discussion. TSA representatives discussed “steps being taken to improve ties with local Somali community members.” CBP and TSA job vacancies were also discussed: “Attendees responded with requests for DHS outreach efforts during Somali community events to further advertise these positions to interested individuals.”
Security concerns permeate the documents. Those Somalis invited to attend the 2016 tour were required to submit passport and other such identifying information. (The bar association required us to submit only our full names and birthdates.) Some did not submit the required information; if they failed to supply it on further request, they were excluded from the tour.
The documents refer to “four closed cases” involving those invited and “a man who gave Chicago CBP a hard time after attending the last outreach event—guessing that they might bring it up so whoever is going to be there might want to read over the [redacted].” One case is described as “open, but barely.” The United States Attorney was to be consulted on that one. At least two of those invited failed the security screening. We know that one who had already taken the tour the year before (Hassan Mohamud) failed it. The Star Tribune reported that a group of 50 had been invited on the tour; the documents show that, after vetting, just 17 were permitted to take it.
All of which raises the question: Why was this tour given in the first place? Grogan told me that tours like the one I took with the bar association have been given at MSP since 2005, but he could not tell me how long the deluxe version, given to Somalis only, has been conducted. As usual, my inquiry to Marsha Catron in the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties went unanswered.
Chief Nevanen told us that the tours are intended to educate the public and publicize the agency’s good work at the airport. DHS’s approach to my requests for basic information regarding the Somali tour, however, suggests reluctance to get the word out. The tour given to Somali community leaders appears to be little more than another extraordinarily foolish legacy of the Obama era of good feelings.
Photo by Michael Ocampo