EgyptAir downing: What we don't know is vital

Story highlights

  • Juliette Kayyem: Donald Trump can say it's terrorism with no evidence, but a serious investigation isn't that easy
  • Security vulnerabilities in aviation are many, but mechanical cause is also possible, she says

CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." She is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)EgyptAir Flight 804's downing is a tragedy. But we still don't know what kind of tragedy. While Donald Trump's certainty that it was a terrorist act may assure some, and could even be accurate, this isn't how investigations like this work. Theories serve only as a way to guide this investigation, but it is facts that will tell us what actually happened. And that matters not simply for the future safety of the global aviation network, but for the stresses on America's own aviation apparatus.

As data, sometimes conflicting, sometimes simply inaccurate, comes through over the next couple of days, it should be somewhat reassuring to recognize that the potential explanations are limited. Planes do not simply fall from the sky. The most likely theories of the case are that it was either pilot error, mechanical failure, or some purposeful disruption like terrorism.
    The data so far suggests any of the theories could be true but certainly there is a possibility that it could have been terrorism.
    While no one has claimed responsibility, the confluence of data points -- no SOS from the pilots, a plane out of control, no weather explanation, Egypt Air's suggestion that terror is their more likely theory, the overall threat environment, and a history of airport security lapses at all the plane's destinations -- cannot be ignored. These facts explain why the U.S. government is saying terrorism is its "working theory." But, again, in the absence of evidence of an explosion, a group claiming responsibility, and any physical evidence, the working theory is only that.
    And while finding the debris (and potentially a trace of explosives) is essential to determine which theory proves right, it would not tell us how an attack occurred. A not insignificant number of people had access to this plane in four countries including airport personnel, passengers and flight employees. And that does not even account for the checked luggage.
    The magnitude of this investigation is evidence of just how complex our global aviation system is. And that is worth remembering as America's own security apparatus, the Transportation Security Administration, comes under increasing pressure to speed up delayed travel times.
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    Wednesday, I wrote a piece for CNN Opinion regarding the controversies surrounding long delay times at domestic airplanes. It seems almost moot now, but shouldn't be.
    The challenges for the TSA are ones experienced around the world: the travel flow of millions of people balanced against the needs of safety and security. That balance will never be perfect, and modifications will need to be made immediately to ease travel for domestic flights this summer. But the challenge remains the same. Any security apparatus is a hindrance for people to get from point A to point B. And the security of any individual plane is dependent on the safety apparatus of a global network of airports also dealing with their own demands and procedures.
    The notion that there is some perfect security apparatus that would be better than what we have is a bit of a fiction.
    While some have called for the private sector to take over TSA, such a change wouldn't solve the intrinsic structural burden encountered in a world where millions of people are flying each day. And imagine changing course, and the burdens that would accrue, in the midst of another potential terror attack.
    TSA, Congress, the airlines and even the American public need to make modifications for the summer of busy travel ahead. But those modifications, as the story of the EgyptAir flight seems to be suggesting, cannot be made at the expense of safety and security.