A personal bodyguard of the US President has accused a leading American airline of racial profiling after a pilot refused to let him on to a plane, making the Arab-American Secret Service agent arrive late for duty at George Bush's Texas ranch.
Walid Shater, the armed 33-year-old agent, was forced to leave the American Airlines flight after the pilot said he became "nervous, anxious and abusive" when he was questioned by airline security staff and that he had failed to fill in correctly the forms that would have allowed him to carry his gun on board.
Through his lawyers, Mr Shater has responded by saying he was treated the way he was purely because of his ethnicity. "Pure and simple, this is a case of discrimination," said Mr Shater's lawyer, John Relman.
The ensuing row has revealed the extreme sensitivity of the airline industry in regard to security since the events of 11 September. Recent incidents, such as the alleged attempt by the Briton Richard Reid to explode a "home-made bomb" while flying between Paris and Miami, show that despite a massive effort by the airlines to tighten security, serious breaches are still taking place.
It has also divided those people who believe racial profiling is a legitimate security tool and those who think civil liberties have suffered because of various measures introduced after the attacks on New York and Washington.
The incident took place on Christmas Day when Mr Shater was trying to fly from Baltimore to Crawford, Texas, where he was to take up his place in Mr Bush's security detail. Initially he boarded American Airlines flight 1191 to Dallas with no difficulties, but because of mechanical problems all of the passengers were moved to flight 363.
According to the agent's lawyers, because there were no new "weapon-carrying" forms staff altered the form Mr Shater had filled in for the earlier flight. Then airline security staff started to question his identity.
In the captain's account of events released this week by the airline Mr Shater then became "nervous and anxious". Because of the agent's demeanour and because of alterations on the form, the captain said he decided not to allow Mr Shater to board. "I was uncomfortable with his actions and did what a captain should do and edge toward the side of safety," he said.
In the version of events described by Mr Shater's lawyers, the airline refused the agent's request to call the Secret Service and authenticate his identity. They claimed three law enforcement officials at the airport had already verified that he was an agent.
In the end Mr Shater, who has two children and has served with the Secret Service for seven years, was refused permission by the captain and he arrived a day late in Crawford. Mr Bush has said he fully supports the agent and that he would be very concerned if he had been discriminated against because of his ethnicity.
The Secret Service has launched its own inquiry into the incident. Mr Shater has indicated that he does not want to sue American Airlines but that he wants an explanation and an assurance such an incident would not happen again. In a brief statement, he said: "It has never been my desire to make this incident personal."
Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said yesterday the incident revealed racism at work. "I think it is an outrage. American Airlines' explanation is completely incredible," he said.
"The only explanation is that the pilot refused to believe that an Arab American might be a Secret Service agent assigned to defend the President."Reuse content