I Snuck in on the Dalai Lama
Even mystical security has its weaknesses
By Gregory Flannery
The “self” is an illusion, according to the Dalai Lama, so it’s fitting that I saw him under false pretenses, passing the security checkpoint under an assumed name. The U.S. State Department had ordered me kept out, but I got in.
The security process for screening journalists for the Dalai Lama’s visit Oct. 21 was almost as obscure and complex as Tibetan Buddhism itself. I was in, then I was out, then I was back in. Finally, on the day of his appearance, a university staffer handed me a press badge and said, “Here. You’re Eric Frisbee.”
Eric Frisbee is a photographer for WHIO (Channel 7) in Dayton, Ohio. I am not Frisbee, but I felt like one, my media credentials tossed back and forth from Oxford, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., and back again.
In the end, the security apparatus was ridiculously flawed. At the security checkpoint, no one even asked for my ID. The badge said I was Eric Frisbee, and I got in.
‘You are not allowed’
I submitted my application for media credentials – including date of birth and social-security number – Sept. 20. An Oct. 12 e-mail from Miami University notified me of approval for the Dalai Lama’s private morning session at Hall Auditorium. A staffer even let me in on a parking secret that prevented my having to walk or catch a shuttle across campus.
But three days later my credentials were revoked – and by a player I didn’t even know was involved. Claire Wagner, director of Miami’s News and Public Information Office, called Streetvibes and left a phone message.
“I’m calling with bad news,” she said. “We received an e-mail from the State Department, who is in charge of security for the day. We had supplied all of the personal information about the media. They have sent back a note saying you are not allowed to be in the venue that day. No details. I’m very sorry.”
An essential part of Tibetan Buddhism is the notion of impermanence – everything changes. This was to prove true in this case.
I phoned Wagner to ask for clarification. I requested the e-mail from the State Department and the name of the person who said I couldn’t cover the Dalai Lama’s visit. That person’s name, it seems, is off-limits. Wagner sent this e-mail:
“I did ask the State Dept. if I could forward contact info. to you and they declined. This is the short e-mail I first got: ‘The criminal history checks revealed the two following people will NOT be allowed to access any venue:
“(One other name)
“Greg Flannery (Media/Press List).’ ”
This was partly useful. I now knew that I wasn’t alone: Someone else had also been denied entry.
I phoned Wagner again. She told me only that the second person is “not a media person.”
“I hope you understand I’m just the conduit on this,” she said.
Streetvibes has filed a public-records request for the uncensored e-mail, containing both the name of the second person who was banned and the name of the State Department official who sent it.
With less than a week before the Dalai Lama’s appearance, I called Wagner to ask if Streetvibes could send a different writer. The answer was no.
“The State Dept. deadline will not allow any changes/additions of media,” she wrote.
Getting nowhere with Miami University, I called the U.S. State Department. I reached James J. Finkle, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, on Mon., Oct. 18. He promised to look into it.
This yielded some improvement. Wagner left a phone message later that day.
“I just got off the phone with the State Department,” she said. “They’re willing to take another reporter for Streetvibes.”
‘Are you going to demonstrate?’
Still unresolved, of course, was the reason behind all this: Why did the Diplomatic Security Bureau of the U.S. State Department want me kept away from the Dalai Lama? In 2009 I wrote an article in which some Buddhists criticized him for violating other Buddhists’ freedom of religion (see “Rejoicing Against Oppression,” issue of Sept. 15-30, 2009). Could that be it? My only criminal conviction is for trespassing, the result of a non-violent anti-war demonstration in 2006. Could that be it? A call Tuesday, Oct. 19, from Special Agent Ken Jones seemed to leave both possibilities open.
“Have you ever had any police trouble?” Jones asked.
I told him about my trespassing conviction.
“Are you going to demonstrate against the Dalai Lama?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I just want to report on his speech.”
“Demonstrations are fine, but a press pass isn’t the best way to go about that,” he said.
“I just want to report on the Dalai Lama’s speech,” I said.
“As far as demonstrations go, we’re ordinarily not in the business of discouraging them, but a press pass would put someone much closer to the Dalai Lama, and you can understand why a security person would be concerned.”
“I just want to report on the Dalai Lama’s speech,” I said.
Jones then asked if Streetvibes could send another reporter. I told him we could.
“Someone will get back to you soon,” he said.
I asked the reason I had been banned.
“I don’t know the specifics of that, and very frankly, if I did, I would probably not be allowed to tell you that,” Jones said.
I don’t know what changed the State Department’s mind, but that night I received a phone message and e-mail from Wagner. She forwarded the following e-mail from the State Department: “Claire, Headquarters has approved Mr. Flannery for a media press pass for Wednesday’s events. Please contact him to let him know.”
Thus I reported, as instructed, at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, to attend the private session with the 14th Dalai Lama, at Hall Auditorium at Miami University. I was told to arrive 90 minutes early for the 9:30 a.m. session in order to pass security. Police officers were everywhere in sight. So was a metal detector.
When it came time to enter, there was no press badge for me. One of Wagner’s staff handed me a badge and said, “Here. You’re Eric Frisbee.”
And that’s how I got in.
You’ll want to know what the Dalai Lama had to say, and I wish I could tell you. After the president of the university presented an honorary doctorate of laws, the chief of the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma spoke, followed by a chorus singing the tribe’s welcome song, followed by a presentation by three professors touting the university’s efforts to preserve Tibetan culture, including a digital sand mandala, a Web page teaching the Tibetan language and a Web page containing important Tibetan texts. At that point I had to leave in order to hurry to a noon meeting in Cincinnati. But I heard the Dalai Lama say this much: “Have a compassionate attitude – openness.”
I’m trying. Openness remains the issue. I’m still waiting for Miami University to comply with our public-records request.