By Anwar Iqbal
WASHINGTON: A Pakistani military delegation became the latest victim of the paranoia permeating US airports on Monday night, when US security officials detained a brigadier at Washington's Dulles airport on a complaint by a passenger who said he did not feel safe sharing the flight with the delegation.
The brigadier was removed from the United Airlines flight, and others in this eight-member delegation were also detained after they disembarked. They were later released.
The dispute became a major diplomatic row as the delegation, offended by this treatment, decided to cancel an important meeting at the headquarters of the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, and return home.
By the time the US Department of Defence apologised to the delegation, their leader, a two-star naval officer, had already informed Islamabad where officials approved his decision to return home on Tuesday night.
The delegation included senior officials from all three services, the army, the navy and the air force.
Dawn contacted the US Transport Security Administration, whose officials had detained the brigadier, and the Department of Homeland Security but failed to get a response.
Mathew Chandler, a DHS spokesman, and Lauren Gaches of TSA, however, asked Dawn to contact the airline.
United Airlines officials, however, told the US media that the brigadier, whose name was not disclosed, had misbehaved with a stewardess and told her that "this would be her last mission".
Information collected by Dawn showed that the incident that led to the cancellation of the meeting happened at Washington's Dulles airport on Monday night when a passenger on the flight to Tampa complained that a Pakistani brigadier, while talking to his colleagues, had made remarks that he found threatening.
Officials of the airline informed the Transport Security Administration who detained the brigadier and later other officials as well.
A Pakistani official, when asked to comment on the airline's claim, said: "This is a delegation of senior officials, led by a two-star officer, not unit captains and majors. Such responsible officers do not indulge in such behaviour."
Information collected by Dawn also confirmed the Pakistani claim as the plane was delayed for 40 minutes before the airline's mentioned the alleged altercation between the brigadier and the stewardess.
Later, an official of the airline came with a TSA security officer and asked the brigadier to disembark. She gave no reason.
The head of the delegation asked the brigadier to get down and cooperate with the TSA. The brigadier disclosed his identity.
There was no response for about 15-20 minutes and then the airline and security officials asked the entire delegation to get off the plane.
The leader of the Pakistani delegation showed TSA officials an invitation letter from the Centcom, confirming that they were going to Tampa for a meeting. He also showed them all the passports that identified the delegation as senior military officers.
He then requested to talk to a senior TSA official or the person in-charge of security at the airport but his request was turned down.
"They did not let them speak and treated them like terrorists," said a Pakistani official. "The investigators were unprofessional, junior officials."
The official said that the TSA and airlines officials kept telling the delegation that a passenger found the brigadier's remarks threatening but did not say what those remarks were.
"The delegation was detained for two hours, telling them nothing, not allowing them to talk to anyone," said the Pakistani official.
"They received no response even when they showed them their passports and the Centcom letter," the official said.
"At the end, they realised their mistake and apologised but by then the delegation had decided it did not want to take that flight."
Explaining why the delegation decided to cancel the meeting and return home, the official said it was basically because of the humiliating treatment by the TSA and airline staff.
"They could not prove any of the allegations. What we gathered is that one of the passengers became paranoid, so they decided to detain an official delegation. This is an issue of paranoia," said the official who said the Pakistani forces will hold their own inquiry to determine what caused this humiliating behaviour.
In Islamabad, the Inter Services Public Relations said: "A Pakistani military delegation on a visit to US (on US invitation to attend a meeting at Centcom) was subjected to unwarranted security checks at Washington airport by US Transport Security Agency. Later, the delegation was cleared and US defence officials regretted the incident. However, as a result of these checks, military authorities in Pakistan decided to cancel the visit and call the delegation back."