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TSA defends searches of elderly


- With age come such things as catheters, colostomy bags and adult diapers. Now add another indignity to getting old - having to drop your pants and show these things to a stranger.

Two women in their 80s put the Transportation Security Administration on the defensive this week by going public about their embarrassment during screenings in a private room at Kennedy Airport. One claimed she had been forced to lower her pants and underwear in front of an agent so that her back brace could be inspected. Another said agents made her pull down her waistband to show her colostomy bag.

While not confirming some of the details, the TSA said that its agents had been justified in one case and that it was still investigating the other.

Experts say the potential for such searches will increase as the U.S. population ages and receives prosthetics and other medical devices, some of which cannot go through screening machines.

Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Fla., said she was mortified when inspectors pulled her aside and asked about the bulge in her pants as she tried to board a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 28.

"I said, 'I have a bag here,' " she said yesterday, pointing to the bulge, which varies in size depending on what she eats. "They didn't understand."

They escorted her to another room, where two female agents "made me lower my sweatpants, and I was really very humiliated," she said. She stood with her arms and legs outstretched, warning the agents not to touch her colostomy bag. Touching the bag can cause pain, she said.

"It's degrading. It's like someone raped you," Sherman said. "They didn't know how to handle a human being."

The next day, agents took 85-year-old Lenore Zimmerman, of Long Beach, N.Y., into a private room to remove her back brace for screening after she decided against going through a scanning machine because of her heart defibrillator. Zimmerman said she had to raise her blouse and lower her pants and underwear for a female TSA agent.

"They should've patted her down," Bruce Zimmerman, her son, said yesterday. "To have her pants and underpants pulled down is just beyond humiliating. This is my mother we are talking about."

The TSA said that it is still investigating Sherman's case but that agents had acted properly in dealing with Zimmerman.

"It is TSA's policy that screening procedures are conducted in a manner that treats all passengers with dignity, respect and courtesy," the agency said in a statement.

The TSA insists that security concerns come first, even if it means getting into passengers' drawers. In 2009, a Nigerian man tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives in his underpants.

"Terrorists and their targets may also range in age," the agency argued in a blog post after Zimmerman went public. It cited the November arrest of four Georgia men, ages 65 to 73, on charges of plotting an attack with the poison ricin. Prosecutors said the men were part of a fringe militia group.