TSA defends searches of children, elderly, amid fresh complaints

After an elderly traveler complained of experiencing indignities at the hands of the TSA, the question arises: When do invasive searches become too invasive?

Christian Science Monitor

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the object of a new round of Internet outcry, this time because of the search of 95-year-old Lena Reppert. A complaint filed after the incident claimed that the TSA insisted she remove her adult diaper. A similar protest followed the pat-down of a 6-year-old girl, which was caught on video and rapidly distributed via Internet.

TSA officials responded to both complaints the same way. “We have reviewed the circumstances involving this screening and determined that our officers acted professionally and according to proper procedure,” they said.

That “procedure” is the source of the problem, say critics. Since unveiling the new scanners and pat-downs in November, the TSA has made a few revisions to their policies affecting children under 12. They receive a "modified" version of the pat-down, and, as of last week, will be patted down less frequently.

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“The search is the very definition of ‘security theater’ – it looks like the agency is doing something, but it accomplishes nothing,” wrote Fred Cate, distinguished professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, in an open letter to Congress written shortly after the new pat-down and screening policies were announced last year.

Who gets patted down?

When asked by a Monitor reporter in November why grandmothers are not exempt from screenings, TSA Administrator John Pistole said, “I hope no grandmother would ever be ... a suicide bomber, [but] there have been two 64-year-olds who have committed suicide attacks.... Where do you draw the line?"

Less than 3 percent of airline passengers get patted down, says the TSA. That includes individuals who cannot be screened by the 500 imaging machines in use at 78 airports, either because they are unable stand upright long enough or because they have a prosthetic or other medical device that the machines cannot interpret.

“Targeting travelers with medical devices seems especially cruel,” noted Professor Cate, who directs both the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research and the Center for Law, Ethics, and Applied Research in Health Information at Indiana University, in his letter. “It is a fine way to greet a veteran who has lost a limb in the service of his or her country or a cancer survivor who has fought a long and disabling war ... to say, ‘We appreciate your sacrifice, and now we are going to delay and embarrass you every time you fly.’ “

Some passengers have characterized the pat-downs as invasive or abusive, saying they felt “molested” and “violated” by the procedure.

The scanning machines and pat-downs were rolled out in October and November, in a response to the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, who boarded an airplane with explosives sewn into his undergarments on Dec. 25, 2009.

Recent incidents

After the June 18 incident with Ms. Reppert, who was moving to a care facility to continue medical treatment, the TSA added a phrase to its review statement, issued Sunday: “… and did not require this passenger to remove an adult diaper."

A TSA official speaking on condition of anonymity said, "In no instance would our officers ask a passenger to remove an adult diaper. Various options to proceed through the checkpoint were presented to the passenger and her daughter during private screening."

The woman’s daughter and fellow traveler, Jean Weber, challenges that. She says TSA officials told her they had detected an anomaly in her mother’s undergarment and that Reppert could not continue to the gate. "My choices were to remove the Depends or not have her clear security," Ms. Weber told msnbc. She took her mother into a restroom and removed the soiled undergarment, though she did not have a clean one to replace it with, she says. At that point, her mother was cleared through security, and because the plane was scheduled to depart in minutes, Weber asked airport officials to push Reppert's wheelchair to the gate, as Weber herself still needed to go through security. They did catch their plane.

Public outcry also followed the videotaped pat-down of a small child on April 5, which was posted on YouTube. Earlier this month, the TSA's Mr. Pistole told a Senate committee that TSA officials had ordered the search because the child had moved while being imaged, preventing the machine from getting a clear picture. He said a new policy for children 12 and under would allow for “repeated efforts … to resolve that without a pat-down.”

The TSA has since said that the new policy “will ultimately reduce – though not eliminate – pat-downs of children.”

In response to traveler complaints, the TSA has often said that its policies are “under revision." In the seven months since these new scans became routine, the few policy changes publicized by the agency have related to the treatment of children. In November, the TSA announced that children would received a "modified" pat-down, and in some cases would go through a metal detector instead of an advanced imaging scanner.

If children or the elderly are given blanket security passes, “the exemption would point terrorists to a gaping hole in our security," said CBS News national security correspondent Bob Orr after the April incident. "It's not a theoretical threat. Terrorists have proven they can smuggle explosives aboard planes.... The bottom line is Al Qaeda is savvy, study our security system and practices, and it's not beyond Al Qaeda to use kids."

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