Secret TSA memo explains differences between medical devices and weapons of mass destruction

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By Christopher Elliott

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. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

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.

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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. Also, 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 TSA 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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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