TSA Pats Down A Six Year Old … It’s A Non-Story

Every few days a non-story seems to make its way into the headlines and go viral through the internet, generally ignoring major facts and factors. This week’s non-story that has become a major story once again involves the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), there are many valid stories that can be reported on regarding the TSA, but the majority of them don’t make for great sound bites, allow for attention grabbing headlines or play on human emotion.

Last month as the Drexel Family passed through the TSA screening checkpoint at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong International Airport, Anna, a six-year-old girl, ‘alarmed’ while passing through the Millimeter Wave Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanner.

Once through the scanner Anna was stopped by a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) and given a pat down to ensure she was not concealing anything under her clothing. The TSA’s standard policy and procedure is to pat down those who ‘alarm’ as they pass through an AIT scanner.

While the media and internet forums fan the outrage, politicians go one step further in their outrage … however one politician in particular, U.S. Representative  Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, the Chairman of The House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense & Foreign Operations is “furious.” Rep. Chaffetz’s furor over the TSA patting down a six year old girl who alarmed while passing through an AIT scanner is noteworthy for one significant reason … it would appear than the Chairman of The House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense & Foreign Operations, has his facts on TSA policy wrong.

Rep. Chaffetz’s has stated, “This conduct is in clear violation of TSA’s explicit policy not to conduct thorough pat-downs on children under the age of 13.” The fact is that the TSA has no such policy.

The TSA’s policy regarding the enhanced pat down of children is that TSO’s will perform a “modified pat down” on children aged 12 and under should they ‘alarm’ as they pass through an AIT scanner.

In watching the video of the pat down Anna Drexel received, it appears the six year old received a modified ‘enhanced pat down,’ not a complete pat down.

What does the video of Anna Drexel’s pat down show me? It shows a TSA TSO who was calm, polite and professional. This TSO explained what she was doing at all times to the child and kept a demeanor kept the six-year-old calm. As the TSA TSO moved around the child she had Anna’s mother move as well, which served a dual purpose:
(1) It allowed Anna to have her mother to her side or in front of her at all times
(2) It allowed Anna’s mother to watch the entire pat down at all times from the angle in which it was occurring.

A flaw in the TSA’s policy that a ‘modified pat down’ be carried out on children 12 and younger is that most people, including many frequent flyers, have no idea what a full ‘enhanced pat down’ actually looks like to know what a ‘modified pat down’ looks like. This lack of defining pat down procedure leaves room for  observers to make judgments calls on what is occurring during a pat ‘modified pat down’ of a child.

Looking past the TSA’s misguided policy and procedure, the agency’s lack of consistency,  ignoring the agency’s ineffective implementation of security layers and live deployment of security practices and just focusing on the potential threat … the fact is a six year old girl may be an unwitting threat.

What exactly does a terrorist look like?

Prior to September 11 2001 the most violent and devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil had been carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a 27 year old white man, with blond hair, blue eyes, from upstate New York, the recipient of the Bronze Star for his acts of combat bravery during the Gulf War, while serving the U.S. Army.

On the surface there would be no indications that Timothy McVeigh would be responsible blowing up a Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the related unprovoked murder of 168 people, 19 of which were children in a day care center, and the further injuring of 450 others.

Given that the stereotypical “All American” Timothy McVeigh referred to the murdered children as ‘collateral damage’ is it hard to imagine someone determined to blow up an airliner using a child as a weapon?

When a person alarms walking through a metal detector or AIT scanner they should be searched. While the current way in which those who alarm AIT scanners are search may be ineffective, the fact is a search must be carried out and carried in meeting the current policy and procedure.

If the public and politicians have a problem with the current TSA policy and procedure … and there are many significant problems with TSA policy, procedure, front line consistency and relevance in execution of mission … they need to devise solution or press their politicians to put pressure on the TSA to research and implement new policy and procedures.

I can find many faults with how the TSA executes security at airports in the United States, but performing a modified pat down in a quick and professional manner on a child that alarmed walked through AIT scanner is not one of those faults.


Below is a video of the TSA patting down a six year old.

Happy Flying!


  1. The TSA should have a private room where a child and their parent are taken for a pat down. Royal Jordanian in July 2000 had a hijacker with a grenade that put a hole in the floor of an A320 when it exploded. It was reported that the grenade passed by his young daughter through security and no one thought of it because of the age of the child (5 years).

    Dealing with young children is problematic at best, but i it has to be done under strict control

  2. Oussama,

    The problem with security is people want it to be effective … just not to impact them. They want the idea of a private room … but don’t want to waste the 4 minutes it takes to use the private room. They want security to be comprehensive … but not invasive.

    Its a lose-lose situation for airports around the world, but in most places its not questioned, and in some places like Israel its praised, here in the US we want the fast food solution.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Patting down a 6 year old is just ridiculous. Where is the common sense in all of these? TSA needs to learn from Israel airport security.

  4. Jonathan,

    I suggest you read the comment here from Oussama regarding an incident with Royal Jordanian.

    As for Israeli style security, we won’t see it it in the US for a wide variety of reasons.

    Happy Flying!


  5. “TSA needs to learn from Israel airport security.”

    do you have any idea the cost of that? your realize how many more airports and travelers the USA has over israel, right?

  6. The sad truth about security (computer, home, personal, transportation, etc.) is that to the degree it’s convenient and unobtrusive, it’s also INsecure.

    Nope, not wild about being groped. Less wild about somebody who wasn’t groped carrying on enough C4 or semtex to take an airplane down, nestled into a small package taped into one of those “non-grope” areas, on an adult or a child. It CAN be done, it HAS been done, and as soon as there’s a body part or a person who is guaranteed unsearchable, well… we know where the next attack vector is, because we’re putting a sign out saying “attach explosive HERE.”

    I agree with Oussama… it needs to be done in private with a parent there… but for the moment and until we have something better, we have to live with what we have.

    Bad guys don’t have “hijacker” or “suicide” tattood in bold red ink on their foreheads, and so TSA has to treat everyone as a potential threat, even young well-heeled blue-eyed blonde guys with short hair and neckties who get bent out of shape over the idea that for the first time in their lives they’re being treated the same way everyone else is.

  7. Jonathan,

    You should read this post on Israeli Style Security – http://bit.ly/eoT2US

    Not to mention that the Israeli Airport Authority overseas 7 airports … only three of which see significant regular traffic … and the TSA oversees 494 airport (TSA Admin Pistole is quoted as saying 456 airports, but the Airports Council International shows that there are 494 airports with commercial airline service in the US).

    The costs of implementing Israeli style security would be massive.

    Here is the current info in the TSA budget – http://bit.ly/eNtHGj

    Happy Flying!


  8. Clayton,

    You should read this post I wrote in November of 2010 – “Two Men Enter Two Airports, One With A Rectal Bomb…” (this is not a typo) – http://bit.ly/gcXj7O

    The email is based on an email I received from a DHS “threat assessment analyst” that opened with ““Two men enter two airports, one with a rectal bomb the other with a masterfully concealed detonation device.” ”

    Its emails like those that keep me up at night pondering exactly what is wrong with aviation security … and what is wrong with the world in general.

    Happy Flying!


  9. Everything has a price and security is one of them. And just because the TSA did not catch a terrorist in the last 10 years, well Israeli security did not either.
    For those who advocate the Israeli style security over the TSA, I would suggest you look at how many civil rights and liberties will be violated.

  10. #1 I think this shows what crazy costs people are willing to make for the show of security.

    #2 If the TSA is going to be patting people down, they need to do it to everyone. If they say, no old people and no kids, time to start slapping explosives on kids and old people.

  11. Thanks for this level headed post. It sounds like this situation was handled quite well.

  12. @Jonathan – I’ve been thru TLV security a few times. One time I got a high-risk sticker given to me…and despite extensive, “clothes off” searching, they never x-rayed, put thru a metal detector or hand inspected my coat.

    While of course I had no prohibited items, despite being subject to rigorous supplemental screening in a back room, cracks were still there. (though admittedly few)

    I think fewer Americans would sign up for their level of invasiveness…making our nude-o-scopes a good solution. (I am sure this last sentence will ruffle some.)

  13. Sorry Fish – have to disagree here.

    If the AIT scanner alarmed, then the patdown should be limited to the area of concern. The only reason to go into people pants is to look for contraband. The TSA needs to focus on finding explosives and stop trying to be a police force. Anyone who has ever been to a overseas military base will tell you that the current patdown procedure is not used anywhere else for explosives detection. There are hand held vacuum units that only require the operator to go over the clothing lightly. (takes seconds BTW) You also achieve the same of effectiveness by doing a simple swab over the clothing. The TSA method is to touch everything and swab the TSO’s gloves. This leaves a whole lot of room for error because one cannot determine the chain of custody of the gloves themselves, nor can they be deemed sterile out of the box.

    The TSA needs to focus on detecting weapons and explosives, not drugs, cash, and nail clippers. The patdowns are completely useless for explosives detection and are a symptom of a very flawed and broken agency..

  14. I would not say “happy flying” quite so glibly, considering the age of the child — six. There are concerns about inappropriate touching of young children, whether individual persons or agencies deem them valid or not. As a parent of a girl, I have real concern that a TSA screener could inappropriately touch her, despite whatever training they are given. Conduct like that outside the airport would subject the screener – or any other individual — to criminal charges; it is only the fact that the federal government shields its employers from these charges that protects them. I have already written to both my congressional representative and both of my states U.S. Senators with my concerns. So, please, don’t say “happy flying” with this subject matter.

  15. Robbyt,

    The search inside a waist band is not for contraband items, it is for hidden weapons.

    As for many other areas of TSA policy and procedure … the gaps in security are huge.

    Happy Flying!


  16. London,

    If you read Flying With Fish, starting with the first post, you’ll note that ever post is ended with “Happy Flying!,” or some variant of this.

    Happy Flying!


  17. London,

    If they are going to say children are exempt from these searches than you might as well tell terrorists, “Hey guys, fell free to bring bombs or whatever you want on, just make sure it is a kids that is carrying it. Happy Flying!”

    It isn’t because they are federal employees that they can get away with it, it is because they are doing security. Cops, who are not federal employees can do the same thing. Your comment that anyone else would be subject to criminal charges is very flawed. A police officer can shoot a person out on the street before getting shot at, whereas in almost any other case the person would face criminal charges.

    Happy Flying!


  18. The people who so blithely use the euphemism “enhanced patdown” are the same ones who lap up and spew “enhanced interrogation.” Torture is torture, and groping is groping, not “enhanced” anything.

    What a population of sheep. Giving up their rights one by one, bleating about “The Terrorists! The Terrorists! The Terrorists Are Hiding Around Every Corner!”, willing to bend over and spread ’em for every sham security procedure that comes down the pike. This country really is getting the government it deserves.

  19. Hi Steven,
    I totally agree with you! Who’s to say that some crazy person won’t use a child to carry out his/her plan with the understanding that said child will be less scrutinized by security? We certainly can’t give possible terrorists the impression that children are not held up to the same level of security standards as adults. I see nothing wrong with security checks such as these. It’s simply common sense, not paranoia as some are led to believe.

  20. Non-story, indeed! Terrorists ARE everywhere. If we had no TSA protecting us proud citizens, it would be 9/11 times 1,000! I’m surprised cavity checks are not madatory for people failing the electronic screening. Obvously, rectally inserted explosives will be the next vector for terrorists!!!

    Remember, nobody has a RIGHT to travel. Traveling is a privilege granted by our government. Where else do our rights come from? Anarchists are what the whiners are. Why else are we required to have our papers in order?

    Papers, please! See, they ask nicely. Now surrender to these searches and stop whining.

  21. I don’t understand why people say you are giving up your rights by allowing security to search you at an airport. If there was a law where at anytime any police officer or federal agent could walk into your house without any cause and do a total search, that would be a problem. Going through security to get on an airplane isn’t anywhere near the same scenario. You are choosing of your own free will to go an risk the chance of: a metal detector, a body scan, a patdown, or any combination of those three things. If you don’t like the rules take a stance and don’t fly, but I can guarantee of the very small percentage of people who are against the patdowns, very few care enough not to fly.

  22. Lisa,
    You are equating TSA pat downs to torture?
    Happy Flying!

    No, Mr. Fish. It’s called an analogy, not an equivalence. It’s about the Orwellian euphemism “enhanced” and how it’s being employed by people who like to obfuscate and don’t want to call a spade a spade.

    But I can see people here have drunk the Kool-Aid. “The Terrorists! The Terrorists Are Hiding Around Every Corner!” Only on airplanes, of course, because they’re apparently too stupid to figure out they can detonate a bomb anywhere else, like they did at Moscow’s Domodedovo. Oops, inconvenient fact.

    I know — let’s stop every car on the highway leading up to the airport and strip everybody there! And at every mall, train station, subway stop, bus depot, stadium, you name it. After all, Anything As Long As It Keeps Us Safe!

    No amount of stripping, scanning, groping, and fondling is making us safer, as security experts from Bruce Schneier to Rafi Sela to Richard Roth to Stephen M. Lord to Rush Holt have already shown. But why respond to reason and logic when we can succumb to fear mongering instead?

    So many Americans cherish their fantasy of 100% Security and No Risk In Life. What’s a little sexual assault as long as we can preserve that fantasy?

  23. P.S. To Kris Ziel:

    I care enough not to fly. Though I love travel, and am lucky enough to have done a lot of it in my life, I’ve stopped flying. Because I don’t think I should have to risk being sexually assaulted, or otherwise harassed, bullied, and intimidated to get on a plane. It’s a sacrifice, but one I’m willing to make. There are more important things in life than my personal desires.

  24. If this is the “modified” patdown, it’s scary to contemplate what happens in an unmodified one! Though the TSO agent behaves professionally and appears to try to reassure the little girl in the video, she still is reaching inside the girl’s waistband – despite the fact that there’s nowhere anything could be hidden inside those form-fitting little pants.

    My son had something similar happen to him three years ago in Belgium (of all places) and is still quite traumatized when reminded of it.

    No wonder parents have spoken out about the treatment of their children: http://youtu.be/z2zj8gyGzSs

    This is madness. As Lisa says, we cannot guarantee perfect safety. This is security theater, adding little real safety while violating our most basic liberties.

    And BTW, while I appreciate every attempt to avoid blaming “brown people” for the terror threat, invoking Timothy McVeigh doesn’t justify intrusive and traumatizing searches on little kids. The TSA would not have stopped McVeigh.

    Terrorists will always look for an unguarded location and target it. A crowded airport checkpoint fits that bill! (And this is making us safer??)

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