India diplomat gets 'humiliating' pat-down at Mississippi airport

The Clarion-Ledger | December 9, 2010
By Elizabeth Crisp

JACKSON, Miss. The recent Transportation Security Administration pat-down of a foreign diplomat at Jackson-Evers International Airport has upset state hosts and elected officials.

Meera Shankar, Indian ambassador to the United States, was in Jackson last weekend as a guest of the Janos Radvanyi Chair in International Security Studies at Mississippi State University.

While in town, Shankar met with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, representatives from the Mississippi Development Authority and members of the Indian community in Jackson, and she spoke to more than 100 people at the Executive Lecture Forum of Jackson.

But her departure is what has many concerned.

New TSA regulations went into effect Nov. 1 allowing federal security officers at airports to switch to more thorough but often controversial "pat-downs" for passengers who require hand searches.

Shankar presented her diplomatic papers to officers and was escorted by an MDA representative and an airport security officer, but witnesses said she was subjected to the hands-on search.

"The way they pat them down it was so humiliating," said Tan Tsai, a research associate at MSU's International Security Studies center who witnessed the screening. "Anybody who passed by could see it."

Calls and e-mails to the Indian Embassy in Washington were not returned Tuesday.

Gov. Haley Barbour's spokesman Dan Turner said the governor's office is looking into the incident.

"At this time, we're trying to find out exactly what happened all of the details," Turner said.

Until the office has done a complete review, Turner said it would be inappropriate to comment on what action may be taken.

The new guidelines do not expressly exempt foreign dignitaries but allow for discretion on the part of TSA officers.

Radvanyi also witnessed Shankar's search.

"I know authorities have established stricter rules for the holiday season, but I don't understand why she was singled out," he said.

Tsai said the ambassador was the only person in a group of at least 30 passengers to be pulled aside.

Nationally, less than 3% of passengers receive a pat-down, according to the TSA.

Those who witnessed the ambassador's screening said officers told her that she was singled out because of the way she was dressed. Shankar was wearing a sari a traditional Indian robe that is draped across the body.

The TSA has guidelines that allow additional screenings when passengers are wearing "bulky" clothing.

"This passenger was screened in accordance with TSA security procedures," TSA spokesman Jon Allen said in an e-mail Tuesday.

According to the policy, individuals can be screened further if the federal officer cannot "reasonably determine" that clothing is free of a "threat item."

"Officers must use their professional discretion to determine if a particular item of clothing could hide a threat object," the policy states.

Under the new guidelines, most who receive the full pat-downs are those who set off metal detectors or decline to use body scanners. Jackson Evers does not have body scanners yet because additional infrastructure is needed.

Shankar did not set off the metal detector, according to witnesses.

The guidelines also allow searches to be conducted in private if a passenger requests. Witnesses said Shankar asked for a private screening, but she was led to a clear box where two officers searched her in clear view.

"She is a very strong woman, but you could see in her face that she was humiliated," Tsai said. "The Indian culture is very modest."

Radvanyi said he worked for three months to get the ambassador to make her first trek to Mississippi.

"We have to make it very clear that Mississippi had nothing to do with it," he said. "It was a federal affair."

Mississippi exported $122 million in products to India in 2009, significantly less than the $232 million in 2008.

Bryant said he discussed increased trade and investment between Mississippi and India during his visit with Shankar.

"Although I understand we need proper security measurers to protect the passengers in U.S. airports, I regret the outrageous way Indian Ambassador Shankar was treated by the TSA while visiting Jackson," he said in an e-mail.

Bryant said he hopes the screening does not deter the ambassador from coming back to Mississippi.

Radvanyi plans to send a formal apology letter to the ambassador, and he expects other state and university leaders will, as well.

"Mississippi had nothing to do with it, but she was very upset," he said. "It's terrible."

Randvanyi said he also will reach out to Mississippi's congressional delegation, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

"This is very bad for Mississippi," he said. "She said she's not going to come back."

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, said he had not heard about the incident.

Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, has raised concerns about the enhanced "pat-down" screenings.

"We've had a number of briefings with our committee," he said. "It raises some concerns with committee members especially the female members."

Thompson said he would "look forward to hearing a formal complaint" about the ambassador's experience if one were to be filed.

"I know there are people who can be exempt (from the screenings)," he said. "I think obvious considerations can be made."