TSA Watch: “Secret” memo explains differences between medical devices and weapons of mass destruction

Remember when the TSA accidentally published its passenger screening manual online a few years ago? Well, in light of this week’s events, which call into question the agency’s basic operating procedures, I’m not waiting around for it to do that again (although it probably will).

In the spirit of helpfulness, I thought I’d write my own memo to the agency’s 58,401 employees, clarifying the functions of some commonly-confused items and how they should be properly screened. Since it’s the TSA, where everything is a secret, this memo would be labeled “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) and you wouldn’t be able to read it until the agency inadvertently published it online, and then it would be absolutely fine.

But it’s my blog, and I say the public has a right to know.

Transportation Security Administration

Aviation Security Directive

Subject: Security Directive
Number: SD [redacted]
Date: January 29, 2012

This Security Directive (SD) must be implemented immediately. The measures contained in this SD are in addition to all other SDs currently in effect for your operations.

INFORMATION: It has come to our attention that our Transportation Security Officers are easily confused by certain items and passengers during screening. This has put the agency in an unfavorable light, and we are releasing this Security Directive in the hopes of avoiding further embarrassment.

Insulin pumps

An insulin pump is a medical device used for the administration of insulin in the treatment of diabetes. It is not a weapon, even though our screeners in Los Angeles sincerely believed otherwise last week. TSA management is troubled that its advanced imaging technology was not advanced enough to inform its screeners that the passenger was wearing a medical device, and will conduct a through review of the scanners when it’s good and ready, and not a moment sooner.

How to tell the difference between an insulin pump and a weapon: Insulin pumps do not fire bullets, explode, or otherwise pose an immediate threat to aviation security. There are no documented cases of a terrorist attack being perpetrated with an insulin pump.


A cupcake is a small cake baked in a cup-shaped container and typically iced. The icing has confused many of our agents, who believe the topping may be a terrorist threat. Per previous security directives, TSA policy on cupcakes and other baked goods is clear: These items may be confiscated at any time, for any reason, as long as you share them with your colleagues in the break room. If questioned by the passenger about the basis for taking away their tasty holiday pies and cookies, please refer them to our list of prohibited items.

How to tell the difference between a cupcake and C-4: The cupcake tastes better.


We have noted that many of our agents are confiscating jewelry and clothing that bear the image of weapons, but are, in fact, are not weapons. We are confident that our well-educated and highly-trained workforce can tell the difference between a rhinestone-studded belt buckle shaped like a gun and a real gun. Again, TSAs policy on these confiscations have been clearly outlined in previous Security Directives. Dangerous-looking jewelry may be confiscated and stored in your locker for safe keeping and if your TSA salary is insufficient, it may be sold on eBay. We are sure we know nothing about that. But for heaven’s sake, leave the tacky stuff for the thrift stores. Seriously, we wouldn’t be caught dead in a rhinestone-studded belt buckle of any kind here at TSA headquarters. Have some dignity, people.

How to tell the difference between jewelry and a dangerous weapon: The jewelry is usually on open display and does not require a permit, unless it is being worn by a teen-ager.

Little old ladies

Elderly female passengers are completely harmless, even though they often travel with dangerous-looking assistive devices like canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. They may also have artificial hips and joints that set off the magnetometer, which makes them appear extremely dangerous. TSA is unaware of any terrorist incidents involving this group of travelers, although we applaud our officers for the thorough screening they have given these passengers in the recent past. (Oh, about that letter in which we apologized — our lawyers made us do that.) If you want to pat down an older female passenger, then for goodness sakes pick one that isn’t argumentative, and don’t try it at JFK.

How to tell the difference between a little old lady and a terrorist: Years of experience, my friend. Years of experience.

This memo is a complete work of fiction. But the sentiments expressed in it may be a lot truer than the TSA is willing to admit.

(Photo: Gabriel Madri gal/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Daisiemae

    Sheer genius! Keep it up!

  • Erin

    Chris, if you wrote all the TSA security directives it would function 100% better then it does now.  This completely made my Sunday!

  • Raven_Altosk

    I totally lol’ed.

  • KeepitRealNow

    I have a sense of humor but this is a very serious matter.  Nine out of ten TSA agents are good. The ten percent make traveling a nightmare. The bad ones will delay you until you miss a flight. That costs a business traveler hundreds of dollars in hotel fees, missed meetings, taxi fees, just for a start. 
    I guess it is funny if you are not really traveling, getting your things confiscated and having the hassel mentioned here.

  • Kotch11

    I really don’t like your making fun of TSA.  Evidently, you don’t take 9/11 seriously.  Sure there are bad apples in any bunch, but that applies to every bunch.  I don’t like the extra precautions, but we have to live with them

  • naoma

    LOVED your column — in spite of reading the few comments below which “didn’t get it.”  Perhaps they are really TSA security people!!

  • TAPman

    Kotch11, since you are so paranoid about an incredibly minute risk, why not go down into the fallout shelter you undoubtedly built to protect yourself against the last bogeyman that was foisted upon us.  Just stay out of the bathtub, cuz odds are it will kill you before any communists, er, sorry, “terrorists” will. 

  • cjr001

    Satire is better than truth.

  • Parisfox

    ONE of the “extra” precautions should be targeting people who fit the profile….like they do bank robbers, etc.  If a white man robs a bank, they don’t go looking for a black man.  However, that’s not “considered” profiling…it’s considered “common sense.”  How many little old ladies or children or for that matter, white men were involved in 9/11?

  • Parisfox

    Chris…the TSA should hire you as their Director or Czar, or whatever they call the head guy.  You make MUCH more sense than they do. KUTGW!!

  • Cybrsk8r

    Repeat after me, Kotch.  “IT’S A CUPCAKE! DUCK, AND COVER!”

  • Maybe not exploding cupcakes, but there are exploding pancakes.  During WWII, the allies smuggled explosive-laden pancake mix into China to supply Chinese guerillas for disruption of their Japanese occupiers.  It could be made into pancakes and eaten with no explosion or ill effects, but used with the proper initiator it would make a good explosion.  Even the uneaten pancakes would explode!


  • I guess Chris didn’t know about HMX when he wrote this latest anti-TSA piece.  Sensationalism is better than truth.

  • Unfortunately the analogy doesn’t work.  In your bank robbery case, your are looking for one specific person.  Consider, perhaps a white guy robs the bank, so if all you want is the robber, then you would properly confine your search to white males.  However, if you also want to get the driver of the getaway car, the planner, the fence, etc. you could not limit your search to just white men.

    Similarly, when looking for terrorist, it doesn’t matter that the terrorist were all Saudi men.  There are  related terrorist including Padilla and Lind, neither of whom are of middle eastern extraction.

  • rockyteddy

    Believe me, Chris doesn’t have a fallout shelter at his house.  I have been to his house so I know this to be a fact.  

  • Susan Fox

    Wow, you’ve really gulped down the TSA kool-aid.

  • Susan Fox

    Love it! Someone needs to occasionally have a sense of humor and the ridiculous about the TSA, ’cause they sure don’t. So glad I fly out of a small regional airport with polite, considerate TSA people.

  • IrishStubborn

    Oh wow…I laughed so hard I though I was going to pass out!  Wonderful!

  • Cupcakes purchased at Starbucks inside of an airport security zone are not on the TSA prohibited carry-on list.  Those brought from home, however, present a danger, at least to Starbuck’s sales, and will be confiscated (mainly because they taste better).

  • RowanWood

    Oh please. There is ZERO evidence the TSA has helped keep us safe. Instead they constantly commit civil rights violations.

  • Puck2u

    But can they read, understand and apply this memo.

  • lol, but it all depends on which airport you travel from..  Some TSA agents are more professional then others.  I found JFK  a joke.  

  • Tom_Bl

    It’s my view that if an object like a belt is not a weapon and is legal to possess, it should not have to be removed for inspection

  • Padilla was a mentally disturbed young man who had zero ties to terrorism.  He has been systematically destroyed by the thugs in our government, in the previous administration and this one.  He doesn’t have a mind left.

    Every other case of a so-called terrorist swept up as a result of the Patriot Act and the post-9/11 hysteria in this country has also been overblown and hyped to the nth degree.

    It’s no wonder our civil liberties are getting flushed down the toilet.

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