WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, squared off with Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole Wednesday over a controversial pat-down of a 6-year-old Kentucky girl.
Paul, a strident opponent of what he sees as overreaching homeland security policies, sharply criticized the TSA's random searches of travelers during a Senate hearing.
Pistole said that although some pat-downs are random, most are based on intelligence.
"I guess this little girl would be part of the random pat-downs, this little girl from Bowling Green, Kentucky, one of my constituents," Paul said. "They're still quite unhappy with you guys as well as myself and a lot of other Americans who think you've gone overboard, you're missing the boat on terrorism because you're doing these invasive searches on six-year-old girls."
Pistole responded that searches help secure the nation's transportation system, but he conceded that agents need to use "common sense."
"Unfortunately, the terrorists have used children under 12 years old as suicide bombers in other locations," Pistole said. "I agree with you we need to be smarter in how we go about doing things. We need to use common sense."
Selena Drexel, the girl's mother, said earlier this year that her daughter Anna was selected for a pat-down when they went through a New Orleans airport. She asked why, but she wasn't given a reason.
Drexel said her daughter began to cry after the search and said, "I'm sorry mommy. I don't know what I did wrong."
Drexel said her daughter has since moved on and is showing no ill effects from the incident. Drexel and her husband uploaded a video of the search on YouTube, where it generated huge interest.
The Transportation Security Administration said in a statement the officer followed proper procedure but the agency is reviewing its screening policies for "low-risk populations, such as young passengers." The agency is exploring ways to "move beyond a one-size-fits-all system."
TSA screeners are instructed to use a "modified" pat-down for children 12 and younger, according to the agency's Web site.
The same week that Anna Drexel was searched, Paul said he got a call from a neighbor of his in Bowling Green whose little boy had a broken foot and crutches. The family didn't want to go through all of the screenings, so they took the cast off and didn't use crutches. The dad hoped to help the boy hobble through on his broken foot.
Paul said TSA agents told the father to back away and made the boy go through the special search anyway because he previously had a cast on — even though the cast was screened with other luggage.
This incident and others raise questions about whether TSA is too busy conducting searches that violate people's privacy rights to focus on catching terrorists, Paul said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.