ISSN 2330-717X

US Insult to Indian Diplomats at Airports


Even in the past, there had been instances of humiliating body searches of Indian diplomats and visiting dignitaries at US airports. The controversy over this has assumed serious dimensions following two recent incidents.


In the first incident reported on December 4, 2010, Ms Meera Shankar, the Indian Ambassador to the US, was subjected to a hands-on (pat-down) body search at an airport in Mississippi, even after her diplomatic status had been revealed. She had been picked out of a security line at the Jackson-Evers International airport reportedly because she was wearing a sari. She was taken to a separate room and searched.

There was a similar incident (date not clear, but reportedly two weeks ago) in which Hardeep Puri, the Indian Ambassador to the UN based in New York, was reportedly asked to remove his turban at an airport in Houston, Texas. When he refused to do so, he was detained in a “holding room” for about 30 minutes and was allowed to leave after a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official intervened. He reportedly declined to allow the security officials to subject him to a pat-down body research.

A pat-down search means patting the entire body from head to foot in order to see whether there is any concealed object attached to the body. The procedures provide for a pat-down of even genitals and breasts. Under new security procedures introduced earlier this year, airline passengers are required to undergo either a full body scan by an x-ray machine or a manual pat-down search. Anyone refusing to agree to one of them cannot board an aircraft.

This procedure was introduced after an incident on December 25, 2009, in which a Nigerian student trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen tried unsuccessfully to blow up a US plane over Detroit. He had concealed an improvised explosive device (IED) inside his underwear and taken advantage of the fact that at the Amsterdam airport where he boarded the plane there was no full body scanner at the departure gate through which he boarded. Nor was there a provision for a pat-down search.

The introduction of the new procedure in the US has come in for criticism from the travelling public in the US. According to the BBC, President Barack Obama has reportedly told the TSA: “You have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety.” The BBC has also quoted Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, as stating that she would not submit to a security pat-down “if I could avoid it”. She added that everyone, “including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the travelling public” and that “striking the right balance is what this is about”. Robert Gibbs, the White House press spokesman, has said that the US airport security agency is “desperately” working to balance travellers’ privacy concerns with security needs. Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole said in an interview to ABC television that there would be no short-term changes, but added: “What I’m doing is going back and looking at, are there less invasive ways of doing the same type of screening?” These remarks by Obama, Mrs. Clinton and other officials were in response to the criticism from the US travelling public and not in response to the protests from the Government of India over the two incidents mentioned above.


The response to the Indian protests has been typical — with the State Department expressing its concern over the incident relating to Meera Shankar, but US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying that the pat-down search had been “appropriate”.

These incidents draw attention once again to the differences that continue to prevail in the US between the State Department and the Homeland Security Department over courtesies to be extended to diplomats and visiting foreign dignitaries. While the State Department opposes such courtesies being sacrificed in the interest of security, the Homeland Security Department sticks to its position that the security of all passengers is paramount and that if a diplomat is to be subjected to the same procedures as others, so be it.

It remains to be seen whether there will be any improvement in the position in future as a result of the Indian protests. The conflict over diplomatic courtesies between Foreign Offices and the Security agencies is a global phenomenon. In Israel, there was a similar incident in 2007, when a senior British woman diplomat was subjected to body search by the Shin Bet security guards when she went to the Prime Minister’s office. An interesting article on the subject carried by the Israeli daily “Haaretz” is annexed. (

Public outrage in India over the US humiliation to Indian diplomats has led to demands for a tit-for-tat policy. This could become counter-productive and lead to a messy situation. Presently, the instructions to our Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which is responsible for airport security, is to treat all foreign diplomats — junior or senior — and visiting foreign dignitaries with courtesy. As a result, India enjoys the reputation of treating foreign diplomats and dignitaries with the courtesies they are entitled to under the Vienna Convention. If we make an exception in the case of US diplomats and authorise the CISF to subject them to body searches under the rule of reciprocity of treatment, we may find it difficult to control the CISF if they adopt these procedures in the case of diplomats of other countries too.

We must look for some other dignified solution in consultation with the US State Department. One understands that in London’s Heathrow Airport if diplomats book the VIP lounge in advance and proceed to the aircraft directly from the lounge accompanied by a representative of the airline, they are not searched. However, if they arrive late and proceed directly to the aircraft from their car, they have to go through normal security procedures. Something on these lines could be worked out. A posting on this from a Heathrow web site is also attached.



THE ISRAELI INCIDENT Published 13.04.07

PMO vows changes after diplomat is strip-searched
Far-reaching changes have been promised at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to prevent a repeat of the incident where the deputy British ambassador was strip-searched by security officers on her way to a pre-arranged meeting at the PMO last month.
By Charlotte Halle

Far-reaching changes have been promised at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to prevent a repeat of the incident where the deputy British ambassador was strip-searched by security officers on her way to a pre-arranged meeting at the PMO last month.

The incident incensed not only diplomats at the British embassy in Tel Aviv. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, who issued a formal apology following the incident, are said to be livid that their ongoing efforts to strengthen bilateral ties could be undermined by what they regard as overly rigorous and crudely handled security checks on diplomats. One diplomatic source suggested the Foreign Ministry leaked the story to the media in an effort to pressure the PMO into making sweeping changes to security procedures following the incident.

British Deputy Head of Mission and Consul General Janet Rogan was subjected to what the British embassy called an “intrusive security check” while accompanying a delegation of British treasury officials to a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and senior policy advisor, Shalom Turgeman. PMO spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the inquiry into the incident had resulted in changes to procedures to accommodate the “special status of diplomats” when entering the PMO. A PMO insider told Anglo File these changes would be “drastic.” Rogan’s complaint also resulted in a formal apology from the PMO for the “indignity” of the incident.

While no one at the Foreign Ministry disputes the gravity of the task facing the Shin Bet security service at the PMO, ministry officials are frustrated that junior officers appear not to understand the importance of treating foreign diplomats sensitively or appreciate the system of diplomatic rankings. “They didn’t understand, or even know, that such a senior diplomat – who serves as charge d’affaires – should not be physically checked at all,” said one ministry source.

The incident, considered particularly embarrassing for Israel due to its wide coverage in the British and American press, did not surprise seasoned Israeli diplomats. One former Israeli ambassador described incidents during his tenure at the Foreign Ministry involving diplomats and foreign officials at the highest levels who were invited to Israel on official missions and yet endured lengthy security checks here that left them “furious.”

“We always complained and it never made any difference,” said the former ambassador, adding that even the intervention of senior politicians on the issue appeared ineffectual. He referred to the wife of a former European premier who possessed a diplomatic passport and vowed never to set foot again in Israel after her “humiliating” interrogation before flying out of Ben-Gurion airport despite an otherwise thrilling visit here. That episode reached the ears of then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who ordered his staff to remedy the system. “Nothing came of it. Do you really think the prime minister can work against habits [entrenched] in this system? You have to go right to the top of the security system,” added the former ambassador. “I really don’t know why these things happen when everything is coordinated in advance. It’s astonishing. It must be someone very stupid at a low level.”

Others are reluctant to blame underlings in the security system. “It’s too easy to put the blame on the shoulders of young men. Those who invite the guests are responsible for preventing these kinds of problems,” said one Foreign Ministry source. But with reports circulating that the prime minister has on occasion left his office to greet high-ranking guests and ease their entry through security, this solution seems far from satisfactory.

No one familiar with the topic views the current situation or the Rogan incident as a sign of deterioration in the treatment of VIPs in Israel, but rather an indication of inherent flaws in the implementation of Israel’s security systems.

A cursory survey of foreign embassies conducted this week by Anglo File found several missions whose staff has experienced at most only minor problems while passing through security. One European diplomat related that his foreign minister’s visit to the PMO last year went “totally smoothly.” The Czech embassy stated its staff had experienced almost no security-related problems. “If there are some difficulties we understand the security reasons are more important than small problems,” said press attache Robert Rehak. One senior European diplomat pointed out that while diplomats working from his embassy in Tel Aviv experienced only minor problems, those based in his country’s consulate in Jerusalem who make frequent trips to Gaza are subject to much closer scrutiny when inside Israel.

A few embassies had specific complaints when contacted by Anglo File. One Asian diplomat recalled an embassy staffer who, despite carrying official documents, was questioned by security officers at Ben-Gurion airport for so long that he missed his plane. He also mentioned that breakdowns in the system that provides special permits for diplomats to meet guests at the airport have resulted in “embarrassing” starts to visits to Israel.

All the embassies contacted view Rogan’s case as unusual and grave, and several diplomats referred to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which grants diplomats and their families a range of privileges and immunities (subject to the host country’s laws and regulations) and compels the host country to treat diplomats with “due respect” and prevent “any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” The convention also declares the personal baggage of a diplomat exempt from inspection barring exceptional circumstances.

“There’s a general feeling that some people who work on the ground here just don’t know the rules. It’s an annoyance in your work,” said one diplomat.

Foreign Ministry Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan said there have been significantly less problems for diplomats and other VIPs at the airport since two ministry staffers were assigned to a special bureau there several years ago. He added that the Vienna Convention was formulated in a different era when security threats took a different form.

A couple of foreign diplomats mentioned that security checks on diplomats in their own countries have also caused friction in recent years. “It’s not just an Israeli problem, it’s a global problem. Balancing the needs of security and protocol are a continuing challenge in our daily work,” said one diplomatic source.

Another foreign diplomat disagrees. “The rest of the world manages to conduct its security checks without treating diplomats and others the way Israel does. Why can’t Israel get a handle on it? Israel’s image abroad is so poor anyway and it simply plays right into that.”

Janet Rogan was unwilling to comment but is said to be have been furious about the indignity caused by both the incident and its widespread coverage. The British embassy issued a statement saying the apology issued by the PMO has been accepted and the matter is regarded as closed.



“Certain very high ranking people from the UK and other countries are not always required to pass through airport security checks. This is a well known policy and is competently managed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) under the provisions of the Diplomatic List and under existing current diplomatic treaties and agreements. The same courtesy is afforded our own Royal Family members as well as certain other high ranking British Officials when they are in other countries. The FCO oversee much of this, in co-operation with Airport Security and the Home Office. The status of the individual using our airport facilities is the important issue regarding that person’s requirement to be screened and thereafter any subsequent exemption that may recommended by the FCO or Her Majesty’s Government. All other persons travelling with the dignitary, who have no such status, are required to be screened. There are other particular types of traveller who may be exempted from search but this is extremely rare and is beyond the scope of this discussion and therefore will not be commented on here. Additionally, all persons entering the airport terminal by means other than the four VIP Suites at Heathrow must present themselves for screening. It is interesting to note that the Australian airline, QANTAS, require all passengers, irrespective of status, to pass though a security check.

It is important to mention, at this point that security staff have no statutory right to search or seizure. We must obtain consent before we commence search procedures on all who pass though our security checks. However, after such consent is given, any attempt to circumvent or otherwise interfere with the search, is a criminal offence and could render the individual liable to arrest and subsequent prosecution. You always have a choice – but if you choose not to comply with security procedures you then have to turn around and leave – it’s as simple as that!

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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