The Indian Ambassador's Sari, a National Security Threat

Earlier this week, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, told Jim Fallows and me that he was hoping to move his agency toward a more intelligent, discerning posture at our nation's airports -- less focus on the things a person is carrying, more focus on the person himself. This is why, he said, the TSA was modifying the way it screens pilots:

Pilots were the biggest group of those I assessed as being low risk to civil aviation. I mean come on, they're in charge of the yoke, they can put the plane down, like the co-pilot in Egypt Air in 990 did.... Instead of physical screening, we do an identity management base system to say, OK, this ID matches up with this airline's current records as of five minutes ago or whatever it is, so if they got fired yesterday... And then the airline has the responsibility -- shared responsibility -- to make sure [of the identity] of anybody that is a licensed pilot with their airline, that they're actually supposed to be in control of the aircraft, pilot or copilot.

For me that's the first step. Then you start looking at who are the other trusted travelers. What about flight attendants? So we made some modifications to the type of physical screening they go through.
I can name another group the TSA could usefully define as trusted flyers: Ambassadors from  countries friendly to the United States:
Meera Shankar, Indian ambassador to the U.S, was in Jackson last weekend as a guest of Mississippi State University.

Despite presenting her formal diplomatic papers to TSA officers, Shankar was selected for an enhanced screening before her departing flight from Jackson-Evers International Airport -- a move that has been decried by India's leaders, as well as Mississippi officials. India's foreign minister told media in New Delhi this morning that the Mississippi trip was the second time Shankar has been subjected to a pat-down in three months.

"Let me be frank, this is unacceptable to India. We are going to take it up with the government of United States, and I hope that things could be resolved so that such unpleasant incidents do not recur," said External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, as quoted by several Indian newspapers.

It's a small group, ambassadors to the U.S. They carry identification, of course, and have high-level liaison relationships with the State Department. Perhaps the State Department could pull together a book of their photos, and distribute this book to TSA checkpoints around the country. Or perhaps the TSA official in charge of the Jackson airport could have googled "Meera Shankar" and seen proof that she was, indeed, India's ambassador to the U.S., and not a dreaded sari-bomber. This episode isn't even funny; it's just pathetic.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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