CBS News: Air Security Murky On Issue Of Religious Headware

If a suspected terrorist can get on a plane with explosive chemicals in his underwear, couldn’t another one smuggle something deadly in a headscarf that is not examined by airport security?

CBS 2’s Mike Parker explores that question.

An airline employee contacted CBS 2 about her concerns. She said she was shocked at how passengers wearing religious headwear — turbans and the Muslim scarves known as the hijab — were passing through security without removing them for inspection.

Every day at O’Hare, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people wearing religious head coverings pass through security. If they are Sikhs, they wear the traditional turban. Some, perhaps most, will be asked to remove them for inspection, but others will not.

Muslim Amina Sharif of the Council on American Islamic Relations flies in and out of her Chicago home town several times a year.

“Sometimes I zip through security without any problems,” she said. “There was one time I was taken aside and had my suitcase searched through for an hour.”

Yet nothing was said then about her headwear, she said.

The guidelines for religious headwear searches are somewhat vague. According to the Transportation Security Administration, “security officers have several options for screening passengers who choose not to remove … headwear.” Notice, they are options.

“Passengers may be subject to additional screening, officers may conduct a pat-down search,” the guidelines say. Nowhere does it say they must be searched.

An airport security expert who has trained sky marshals says there’s too much leeway in security policy. “All headwear,” Larry Wansley says, “should be searched every time, automatically, without exception.”

One air traveler at O’Hare, Piers Morgan, endorsed the idea of taking no chances.

“I’d personally be more comfortable if they were searched,” he said.

Sharif disagrees.

“Muslim Americans are also concerned about remaining safe, but we don’t want to be singled out and should not be singled out because of our religious beliefs,” she said.

The TSA would not agree to an interview, so we can only surmise that the agency considers random searches of religious headwear to be appropriate and that because they are random they do not add up to profiling.

This news story aired on 01/15/2010

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