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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The TSA ‘Strip Search’ That Wasn’t

Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah tweeted Nov. 21 that an airport security officer strip-searched a young boy. Chaffetz linked to a YouTube video that showed a shirtless boy being searched at a Utah airport. But the lawmaker jumped to a false conclusion. Both the Transportation Security Administration and the person who videotaped the incident say the boy’s father removed his son’s shirt, not TSA officers.

Chaffetz’s mis-tweet is just one example of the recent outcry against the TSA’s new imaging machines and pat-down techniques. With so many Americans flying over the Thanksgiving weekend, politicians are voicing concern about increasing invasiveness and inconvenience of these security procedures. College student Luke Tait was similarly alarmed by the sight of a TSA officer searching a young boy at the Salt Lake City International Airport Nov. 19, and Tait videotaped the incident on his cell phone.

He posted the video on YouTube with the headline, “Young Boy Strip searched by TSA (Original w/ Full Story Description).” Several conservative websites, including the Drudge Report and Andrew Breitbart’s blog, linked to the video. Breitbart posted the video under the headline, “Witness: Young Boy Strip-Searched by TSA.” On the Drudge Report, the video appeared with the headline, “Hands on Boy.” It immediately went viral and has now been viewed 1.6 million times.

Chaffetz responded to this video in a tweet on Nov. 21.

Chaffetz tweet, Nov. 21: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSQTz1bccL4 Whoa! Strip searching a little kid. Out of control….there is a better way #tcot #utpol

Despite his inaccurate headline, Tait made it clear in a post accompanying the YouTube video that the boy’s father — not TSA agents — removed the child’s shirt. He wrote: “Lets get the facts straight first….The enraged father pulled his son shirt off and gave it to the TSA agent to search, thats when this video begins.”

On its website, the Transportation Security Administration confirmed that the boy’s father removed the shirt.

TSA blog, Nov. 22: On November 19, a family was traveling through a TSA checkpoint at the Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). Their son alarmed the walk through metal detector and needed to undergo secondary screening. The boy’s father removed his son’s shirt in an effort to expedite the screening. After our TSO completed the screening, he helped the boy put his shirt back on. That’s it. No complaints were filed and the father was standing by his son for the entire procedure.

Tait claimed that the alarm did not go off, and the TSA admitted in a Dec. 13 update that the boy did not set off the alarm. The TSA now says the boy was patted down because he was wearing bulky clothing. Regardless of the reason for the screening, the boy was not strip-searched, as Chaffetz tweeted.

Chaffetz tweeted again about the incident on Monday, promising an investigation.

Chaffetz tweet, Nov. 22: I am preparing a letter to the Obama Administration demanding an investigation of the incident and the apparent harassment of Luke Tait.

Chaffetz submitted that letter to President Barack Obama on Nov. 23. In the letter, Chaffetz backed away from the claim that the boy was strip-searched, saying instead that the boy’s father removed the shirt. His major grievance was that the TSA officer proceeded with the pat down, while the boy was still shirtless.

Chaffetz then went on to discuss the mistreatment of Tait. Chaffetz wrote that Tait claimed a TSA officer repeatedly asked him to delete the video. After Tait refused, Chaffetz said Tait was followed by several security officers to his gate. However, Tait’s account of the incident does not match Chaffetz’s description. In his YouTube post, Tait wrote that after he refused to delete the video and proceeded to his gate, he noticed four security officers waiting by his gate. Tait wrote that he “didn’t know why they were there or if it was a huge coincidence.”

— Lauren Hitt

Update, Dec. 15: The TSA initially said the boy “needed to undergo secondary screening” because he set off the alarm. That turned out to be false. The TSA now says the child was patted down because he was wearing bulky clothes. We updated our report to reflect the new information.