U.S. Officials Sacked for Frisking India’s Former President; Did TSA Go Too Far?

This article has been written by Sanskrity Sinha for IBTimes, published on Nov. 18, 2011.

Two Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials involved in the recent frisking incident of former Indian president Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam at a U.S. airport have reportedly been sacked, according to an Indian national daily.

Though there are no confirmed reports of the lay-off either by TSA or U.S. Government, the Hindustan Times reported Thursday that the U.S. authorities had fired the executives for "exceeding their brief" as they made former Kalam, who is also an eminent scientist, face security checks a second time after he had boarded his aircraft.

India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement Nov. 13 that Abdul Kalam went through the prescribed private screening procedure at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York Sept. 29, before boarding an Air India aircraft to fly back home.

However, the frisking incident followed as TSA agents requested Air India staff for President Kalam's jacket and shoes since they had not been checked during the screening, the MEA explained.

Subsequent to the protest lodged by the MEA over the incident, the United States Government and TSA Administrator extended their apology to Kalam and the Indian government last week. "Appropriate procedures for expedited screening of dignitaries had not been followed," said the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in a statement.

Although the U.S. government and the TSA said that they were taking corrective steps to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future, under existing US regulation, Abdul Kalam does not fall into the category of persons exempt from security screening.

"The two governments are also planning to hold discussions to explore appropriate mechanisms for facilitating airport procedures for dignitaries, in accordance with national regulations," said an MEA spokesperson.

U.S. dignitaries, in contrast, are always exempt from security checks as a gesture of courtesy and respect in India.

Frisking in 2009 on His Homeland

Kalam was subjected to a similar frisking incident in his home country also. He was forced to undergo pre-board screening by the staff of the Continental Airlines on April 21, 2009.

As per TSA policy, "While traveling from an international location to the U.S. on an U.S. commercial aircraft, former Heads of State, and other VIPs, are screened according to the same screening procedures as for any other passenger."

"There are reports that the government of India has an official list of VIPs and their spouses that are exempt from pre-board screening procedures. However, such a list does not mirror U.S. requirements for passengers that are exempted from pre-board screening when traveling aboard U.S. commercial aircraft," TSA had said in a statement following the security screening of Kalam in 2009.

In yet another incident with an Indian VIP in the same year, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was questioned for two hours by U.S. immigration officials until the Indian Embassy sought his release.

Another Pat-Down Row in the Making?

The whole frisking affair brings back the memory of last year's fuss over airport security measures adopted by TSA ahead of holiday season when air passengers were subjected to pat-down searches and intrusive body scanners.

An outrage over TSA screening methods involving an eminent personality ahead of holiday season this year could be just an indication of what's in-store for travelers around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, supposed to be the busiest days of air travel in a year.

Following the outcry of travelers, young and old, who called TSA measures as privacy-stripping, and U.S. President Barack Obama's intervention, who asked TSA officials to ensure travel safety through "less intrusive" security rules, the U.S. security agency announced last month that Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines would be deployed across 29 U.S. airports.

These machines are designed with technologies that strengthen travelers' privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images during screening process while ensuring the highest level of security, said TSA Administrator John S. Pistole. Currently 78 airports nationwide have the AIT machines.

However, for those who refuses to get scanned through AIT machines, pat-down search will be the only option left.

While the U.S. government should definitely mull over finding more "dignified" ways of security checking for dignitaries, especially eminent persons like Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, TSA's commitment to security cannot be ignored.

According to TSA, its officials have detected more than 800 guns and other weapon around the country so far this year. In a recent incident, TSA's checkpoint screening helped in the arrest of a passenger with two pistols, three ammo magazines and eight knives while he was trying to board a plane at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) Oct. 20.


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