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In era of heightened security, foreign diplomats and TSA share bumpy relationship

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 11:01 PM

UNITED NATIONS - Hardeep Singh Puri, India's ambassador to the United Nations, last month ran headfirst into a controversial new Transportation Security Administration inspection policy for many foreign travelers.

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At the airport in Austin, TSA agents demanded to inspect his turban. Puri is a Sikh, whose religion requires that the turban, or dastar, be worn in public to cover uncut hair. Puri refused the TSA order, citing an agency exception that allows Sikhs to pat down their own turbans to avoid intrusive searches and then have their hands tested for possible explosives.

The situation escalated when TSA agents initially ignored Puri's protestations and said they would decide what the rules are, according to an official traveling with the ambassador.

Puri told an Indian newspaper that the issue was resolved in about 20 minutes after he asked a supervisor to intervene.

The incident underscores the sometimes bumpy relationship between the TSA and foreign delegations traveling to the United States in an era of heightened security.

Diplomats are required to submit to searches, which intensified for many foreign travelers to the United States in January. The TSA put in place special procedures for greater scrutiny of individuals from 14 countries, most of them Muslim, prompting complaints from Muslim governments. (India was not on the list.)

In April, "enhanced random security measures" for all passengers were put into effect - including pat-downs, sniffing dogs and more rigorous explosives testing. And last month, the TSA approved even more invasive body searches, which posed particularly sensitive issues for passengers with certain religious beliefs and medical issues.

For globe-trotting diplomats, the U.S. government has offered since 2007 a list of "tips" to help them get through "the screening process easily and efficiently." It advises foreign dignitaries to carry two sets of credentials and warns that "screening may include a hand-wanding procedure and pat-down inspection." Searches, the memo says, will be conducted out of public view.

The episode involving Puri has roiled sensibilities in India, where Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna complained this month about the TSA's pat-downs of Meera Shankar, the country's ambassador to the United States. Krishna said Shankar was frisked twice in three months, most recently when she was pulled aside at the Jackson, Miss., airport and subjected to a body search by a female TSA agent.

"Let me be very frank that this is unacceptable," Krishna said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the State Department would look into the matter and try to take steps to avoid such international incidents.


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