April 9, 2010 -- The diplomatic immunity granted to a Qatar Embassy official after he breached security on a Denver-bound plane has sparked debate nationwide about how the United States treats law-breaking, foreign diplomats.
Mohammed al Modadi, 27, joked about setting his shoes on fire after he was caught sneaking a smoke in the bathroom of United Airlines Flight 663 Wednesday. Modadi's sarcastic remark caused a military scramble; two F-16 fighter jets were deployed as a security measure to escort the flight, which made an emergency landing.
The Transportation Security Administration requested that an alert be sent to all of the airplanes in the sky.
"Attention all aircraft, this is an advisory. Be advised, a U.S. air carrier has reported a passenger has attempted to ignite his shoes on fire," said the alert, which went out after Flight 663 was on the ground. "All pilots are to maintain extra vigilance and report any anomalies immediately to ATC [air traffic control towers]."
The plane was met by the FBI and local law enforcement. Even President Obama received a report.
The Qatari government relieved Modadi of his plum assignment but he won't suffer any consequences at the hands of the U.S. government because of his diplomatic immunity, which has caused outrage among many.
Critics have lashed out on airwaves and the Internet. Some are calling for the Qatari government to reimburse the cost of handling the bomb scare. It costs taxpayers an estimated $7,500 per hour in fuel and maintenance expenses for each fighter jet, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
But the State Department has said that the United States has no plans to ask Qatar for reimbursement.
Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said diplomatic immunity is legally appropriate but doesn't give diplomats a free pass to misbehave.
"Diplomatic immunity is centuries old, and it's actually quite important to protect, say, American diplomats who have to work in dangerous countries," Burns said. "Diplomatic immunity does not give you the right, as [former Supreme Court justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, to yell fire in a crowded theater. You are supposed to observe the laws and customs of the country to which you are accredited."
The laws for diplomatic immunity were formally implemented in 1961 to protect diplomats from capricious governments or in times of hostilities. But it often stirs controversy.
U.N. diplomats owe the city of New York nearly $18 million in parking tickets. Several years ago, the United States had to release a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates accused of child molestation.
"In a situation like this ... you're really relying upon the good will of the others to make sure that they do everything they can to correct the abuse or to hold someone responsible if a crime is being committed," Burns said. "If someone is involved in a traffic accident or if someone is involved in a criminal offense, you expect that other country to make sure that that person pays for that crime."
The United States itself has taken some heat abroad for protecting its diplomats. Romanians are still angry about the death of a popular singer killed in a car accident by a U.S. Marine stationed at the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. government refuses to lift his immunity.
The Issue of Diplomatic Immunity Sparks Debate
Governments at times can and do lift diplomatic immunity if the case doesn't involve official duties. In 1997, Georgi Makharadze, deputy ambassador from Georgia to the United States, was convicted of killing a 16-year-old girl after drinking and speeding. Makharadze spent three years in a U.S. prison and two in a Georgian prison. He is now on parole.
"Diplomatic immunity is not always immutable," Burns said. "A government can decide to drop diplomatic immunity and subject a diplomat to the local law enforcement or courts of a country. ... I think it's appropriate sometimes for the government to give up diplomatic immunity if the person has committed an egregious crime of a private nature."
Modadi was on an official mission to Detroit, a sensitive one. He was going to visit jailed Qatar al Qaeda member Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri in a supermaximum security prison, part of his routine duties. Al-Marri was arrested in Illinois shortly after the 9/11 attacks and is believed to have been an al Qaeda sleeper agent.
Federal officials confirmed Thursday that Modadi would face no charges, saying he "absolutely will not be charged with a crime. He has diplomatic immunity. He invoked it."
A senior U.S. official said the United States and Qatar are looking for a way to bring the matter to a close without further embarrassment.
"I expect this to be resolved very quickly," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Thursday, without elaborating.
ABC News' Brian Hartman, Scott Mayerowitz, Kirit Radia and Jason Ryan contributed to this report.