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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?

By Elizabeth FullerCorrespondent / June 27, 2011

TSA Administrator John Pistole testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on June 22. Mr. Pistole defends the practice of patting down children and the elderly in the name of national security.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP


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.

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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.

“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.


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