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

By Colum Lynch
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.

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.

State Departmspokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement: "The threat to aviation is a global challenge and every airport in the world is wrestling with how to best protect the flying public with as little friction as possible. We are all in this together. Our citizens are affected and those of other countries. Our diplomats are impacted, so are the diplomats of other countries. These situations in this country are certainly not unique."

A TSA spokesman defended the handling of Puri and Shankar. The overwhelming majority of 2 million U.S. air travelers, the official said, have had a positive experience transiting through the nation's airports.

Puri "was not required to remove his turban, and our officers worked with him to complete screening according to established procedures," said spokesman Nicholas Kimball. "We will continue working with our officers to reinforce all established policies, including those pertaining to the respectful screening of religious headwear and clothing."

Kimball also said that a review of Shankar's pat-down in Jackson demonstrated that the TSA agents "followed proper procedure."

"United States airport security policies accommodate those individuals with religious, medical or other reasons for which the passenger cannot or wishes not to remove a certain item of clothing," Kimball added. "For religious headwear, a passenger can pat the item down themselves and then have their hand tested for traces of explosive residue."

In March, a State Department goodwill tour of the United States for a delegation of Pakistani lawmakers backfired after the group was asked to submit to additional screening on a flight from Washington to New Orleans. The lawmakers refused to board. The Pakistani army recalled a military delegation from Washington after the officers were subjected to what it called "unwarranted" searches.

Many of the incidents involve domestic flights at airports where TSA agents may have less exposure to foreign fliers than those at major international airports. One U.N. official, an American citizen of South Asian extraction, traveling with his American wife and children, said he often gets pulled aside for pat-downs and "random searches."

He said his youngest daughter recently recalled her memories of a flight: "I remember, we go on the airplane, and I take my shoes off, and you take your shoes off, and the men take Papa away and touch him everywhere," the girl told her mother.

But other diplomats from South Asia say they have had no trouble with the TSA.

Anwarul Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to the United Nations, said he has traveled without problems for more than a decade as a foreign and U.N. official. He recently returned from a trip to Spain without incident. "We had smooth sailing," he said. "My wife also wears a sari all the time. I don't wear a turban, but I think they were extremely courteous, very nice."

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