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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?

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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.

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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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