Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pakistani Visitors Receive a Cultural Experience, TSA-Style

The New York Times is reporting tonight on a fiasco of a cultural exchange visit to the U.S. by a group of Pakistani parliamentarians (Upset by U.S. Security, Pakistanis Return as Heroes):

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A tour of the United States arranged by the State Department to improve ties to Pakistani legislators ended in a public relations fiasco when the members of the group refused to submit to extra airport screening in Washington, and they are now being hailed as heroes on their return home.

“People should be thankful, you made them so proud,” said Hamid Mir, the host of a popular national talk show, during an interview in his studio on Tuesday with four of the six politicians, who railed against the security precautions at Ronald Reagan National Airport.

Meetings with the Obama administration’s top policy makers on Pakistan, including the president’s special representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, and visits to the Pentagon and the National Security Council, did not allay the anger the politicians said they felt at being asked to submit to a secondary screening on Sunday before boarding a flight to New Orleans. They declined to be screened and did not board the flight.

Pakistan is one of 14 mostly Muslim countries whose citizens must go through increased checks before they fly into the United States, a procedure mandated by the Obama administration in the wake of the failed attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up an airliner flying from the Netherlands to Detroit on Dec. 25.

The inclusion of Pakistan on the list was broadly criticized as an insult to a country that the United States calls an ally.

The leader of the parliamentary group, Senator Abbas Khan Afridi, said in an interview on Tuesday that before they were to board the flight for New Orleans, he and his colleagues were selected from a crowd of passengers at the airport and asked to stand aside.

They were then asked to accept a full-body scan by a machine, he said. Such body-scanning units are in use at 19 airports across the United States, and more are being installed.

One of Mr. Afridi’s colleagues, Akhunzada Chitan, told Mr. Mir on his “Capital Talk” program, “Going through a body scan makes you naked, and in making you naked, they make the whole country naked.”

The lawmakers were chosen to visit the United States by the Political Section of the American Embassy. American officials are eager to reach out to political figures from the underdeveloped and isolated tribal areas where the Pakistani Army is now fighting to reclaim territory from the Taliban.

The United States Agency for International Development pledged two years ago to spend $750 million on various projects in the tribal areas, but residents there complain that they see more of the Taliban than American assistance.

In preparatory briefings for their trip, the politicians were advised that they might have to submit to extra body searches, just as randomly selected Americans must submit to secondary screening by the new machines, two officials from the American Embassy said.

The Pakistanis were specifically warned that the United States was not a “V.I.P. culture,” unlike Pakistan, where politicians are often exempted from unpalatable procedures that other people have to tolerate, the American officials said.

“We are disappointed that the group took offense at the security procedures thousands of Americans and visitors must endure at airports every day,” said Larry Schwartz, the senior communications adviser at the American Embassy in Islamabad.

“No offense was intended. Indeed, they were warmly welcomed at high levels in Washington.”

The American Embassy in Islamabad has been endowed with an extra $37 million by Congress to spend on exchange programs intended to show skeptical Pakistanis that the United States is a real ally, a country that wants to help, not hinder, Pakistan.

The people-to-people exchanges between Pakistan and the United States, which include American lecturers and teachers of English coming to Pakistan, is now the most ambitious of such efforts run by the State Department around the globe, Mr. Schwartz said.

About 2,000 Pakistanis are expected to participate in the strengthened educational and cultural programs this year, he said. Indeed, a prime motivation of the protest against the screening procedures by the tribal area politicians appeared to be an effort to appeal to their home constituencies, many of whom regard the United States as an enemy.

“Our people were very disturbed we were going to America,” Mr. Afridi said. “We were under threat for going to the United States. We took the risk to see if America was interested in solving the problems.”

It isn't clear from this report whether the Pakistanis absolutely, positively, refused to go through a body scanner, or whether they were reacting to a little bad attitude from a TSA Inspector. (What? A TSA Inspector getting officious? Hard to believe, I know.) Or was it a case of foreign VIP presumption meeting homegrown TSA intransigence? Either way, things will not end happily.


A Daring Adventure said...

TSA messing stuff up is no big shocker, I can tell you that!

But, then again, I hate them.


I was on the verge of doing a TSA themed blog post. I might have to hurry that one up, a bit. Hope TSA trolls blogs and finds stuff like this. Then again, don't see anything ever changing, no matter what they read.


A Daring Adventure said...

Pointed someone toward an older post of yours today...


Just an FYI!