A few weeks before Christmas I air-dropped into Turkey for a few meetings. I arrived in Istanbul from Brussels at about midday and I left again late that night. In-out…
The following week I took several US domestic flights and on every single flight I took, there was the dreaded SSSS at the bottom of my boarding pass, that “secret” TSA code for “please give this person extra attention”. Of course, all flyers are randomly selected for additional security checks, it’s part of the the grand schema intended to make our skies safe. In general, I don’t grumble about it and duly submit myself to the prodding, patting, dusting, unzipping (usually of luggage, but not always…) and occasionally a pointed question or two.
TSE security checks are usually fairly benign but I do remember one time where I had returned to the US from the Middle East and was flagged for additional security clearance. The fact that I was carrying a textbook on the basics of Shari’ah finance and a Qibla on my iPhone home page didn’t really do me a lot of service in the “discussion” about who I was and where I had been. Incidentally, these days, my general viewpoint is that airlines that have an “arrow to Mecca” and a prayer room are a hell of a lot safer than carriers from secular countries and I have a theory that is is somewhat reflected in the price difference for any ticket that involves flying over the Caucasus, MENA or Asia Minor. The proverbial flying Islamic body shield? Hmmmm…. perhaps not given that moderate Muslims seem to be fair game these days too.
… But I digress.
Six or seven times in one week is more than just a coincidence and so I asked a United Airlines service desk whether they could see anything against my frequent flyer number. The agent confirmed that my record was “flagged” and that my TSA Pre-Check status had been removed. A brief discussion with TSA confirmed that there was a process I could go through, including an interview with the FBI, to re-instate my status. Crazy.
I am not exactly sure what happened but today my TSA status is back. Perhaps it was Uncle Sam’s forgiveness from the Christmas season? Perhaps my little venture off the path of travel enlightenment only entitled me to a limited number of rubber gloves? Perhaps it was just a case of a time lock – enough time to have me searched a few times (and irritate a few hundred passengers when the security queue has to be temporarily closed to facilitate my search)? I realize that the US-Turkish relationship has markedly declined in the last decade on the back of war in Iraq and the Armenian Genocide controversy but Turkey is still, in my view, a critical ally of the US and NATO and I am surprised that there is this level of security sensitivity.
Frankly, I am relieved.
If I am honest with you, I wouldn’t have really wanted to explain that I was visiting a Turkish nuclear technologies company. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to explain that my (US) company was hoping to sell nuclear medicine products in places like Turkey and the Middle East. As a Canadian passport holder whenever I arrive back in the US, there is always an intrinsic skepticism about the integrity of people from across the “leaky” northern border and a week in the Australian summer sun had turned my skin a nice dusky “Arab” hue, thanks to my Mediterranean genes. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to understand how half a day in a country touted as the “Land Bridge to Syria” put me on a watch list.
I guess I will never know.