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TSA regrets 'discomfort,' but says elderly fliers weren't strip-searched

By Khara Lewin, CNN
updated 2:03 PM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two elderly women claim airport screeners subjected them to strip searches at JFK airport
  • In its latest response, TSA says it regrets "discomfort or inconvenience" to the women
  • But the agency stands by earlier statement that neither woman was strip searched
  • State senator says of response, "It's improving but nowhere where it needs to be"

New York (CNN) -- The Transportation Security Administration has apologized for the actions of some airport screeners, and that its officers did not follow standard procedures when they asked to see a colostomy device on one woman and put another woman's back brace through an X-ray machine. But the agency stands by its earlier statements that neither woman was strip searched or asked to remove any clothing.

This is the third time the TSA has altered its response to the allegations made by two elderly women passing through New York's JFK International Airport during the Thanksgiving holiday in 2011.

The complaints of Ruth Sherman and Lenore Zimmerman came within days of one another. Both claimed that after opting out of the walk-through metal detector, they were subjected to strip searches by two female TSA officers at the airport.

Sherman's son, Ralph, told CNN his mother has a permanent colostomy bag attached to the left of her navel which causes a bulge under her clothing. He was not present during the incident, but has been speaking on behalf of his mother.

Grandma: TSA strip-searched me

Upon noticing the bulge, according to Ralph Sherman, TSA officers said to his mother, "Pull down your pants. Pull down your underwear."

In a blog post on December 4, shortly after the alleged incidents occurred, TSA firmly denied the allegations. "TSA contacted the passenger to apologize that she feels she had an unpleasant screening experience; however, TSA does not include strip search in its protocols," the post read, "and a strip search did not occur in this case."

"Terrorists remain focused on attacking transportation through tactics such as concealing explosives under clothing," the blog post added.

For the Shermans, the apology does not go far enough. Ralph Sherman says his mother, who turns 89 this month, is still traumatized by the incident. "It's hard enough bringing an 89-year-old woman up north as it is," he said.

After hearing of the alleged incidents, state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who wrote the New York Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, requested "an immediate and comprehensive investigation of both incidents."

Less than a week after receiving Gianaris' e-mail, TSA bloggers posted a clarification stating it is the goal of the TSA "to provide the highest level of security while ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity and respect."

The post went on to acknowledge a miscommunication between Zimmerman and the female officers who conducted her private screening. "Our officers were told that the passenger was wearing a money belt. Unlike medical braces and supports, money belts must be removed," it says.

It was only after the passenger removed the brace that it was determined to have a medical purpose.

It is unclear why Zimmerman, 85, told the officers her back brace was a money belt.

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs responded to Gianaris' request, altering TSA's response once again and stating, "TSA sincerely regrets any discomfort or inconvenience the passengers at JFK experienced. Please be assured that at no time are Transportation Security Officers authorized to conduct 'strip searches' of passengers."

When asked about the most recent response, Gianaris said, "It's improving but nowhere where it needs to be."

"TSA needs to do two things: one, provide safety, and number two, make sure the process is welcoming to the flying public," he said. "And in that latter case, they failed."

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