TSA apology? Two elderly women were screened improperly

The Transportation Security Administration has offered a mea culpa, of sorts, for the screening of two elderly women who said they were partially strip-searched at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in November.

Yes, security screeners violated procedures when they asked the women, in separate incidents, to show them medical devices concealed beneath their clothing, said Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Betsy Markey in letters made public this week.

But Markey vehemently denied that the women were "strip-searched."

Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Beach, N.Y., and 88-year-old Ruth Sherman, of Sunrise, Fla., became the focus of national media attention after they alleged in late November that they were partially strip-searched when traveling through Kennedy Airport.

Zimmerman, who weighs less than 110 pounds and is in a wheelchair, has said that -- after being escorted into a private room -- she had to raise her shirt and lower her pants for a female TSA agent. She also said she had to remove her back brace, which was put through an X-ray machine, according to the Associated Press.

“They took my pants down, and then they took my underwear down,” Zimmerman earlier told NBC affiliate WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla. “It’s never happened in the 10 years of flying down to Florida.”

Sherman, who wears a colostomy bag and uses a wheelchair, said she was asked to lower her sweatpants so agents could inspect the device, according to the AP.

The TSA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, says that it interviewed the officers, reviewed video footage, interviewed the passengers themselves -- and determined that no strip searches took place.

In letters addressed to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris, author of that state's airline passengers' bill of rights law, Markey wrote of both cases: "At no point was the passenger asked to remove any items of clothing during screening."

Gianaris appeared somewhat dissatisfied with the results of the investigation, saying he wants the agencies to admit that the women were strip-searched and apologize.

"It’s obvious that something went wrong," Gianaris said in a phone interview Wednesday. "These two women that didn’t know each other before this happened had no reason to invent the same story."

Both women said they were asked to remove their clothing, but Markey said that each "voluntarily" began undressing.

In her letter, Markey said that running the brace through the X-ray machine and conducting a visual inspection of the colostomy bag are not "standard operating [procedures]."

She said the TSA agents involved will receive a refresher course on how to respectfully and safely screen passengers with disabilities or medical conditions and that TSA "sincerely regrets any discomfort or inconvenience the passengers at JFK experienced."

"The letter they sent to me apologized for the fact that procedures were not adhered to, but it didn’t go all the way. It denied that the strip search was done," Gianaris said.

"I think we’re arguing semantics at this point, but it’d be good if they didn’t view this as adversarial," he added.

Officials with Homeland Security and TSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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