Juliette Kayyem: Just "doing something" isn't enough; if there were a specific and credible threat about terrorists' capacity to bring down an airliner with laptops, then it seems unimaginable that we wouldn't have a global laptop ban
Just because the intelligence is there doesn't mean that the response was coherent, or justified. The laptop ban should still be revised or aborted., she writes
Editor’s Note: 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, host of the national security podcast The SCIF and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
There’s something simultaneously familiar and disturbing about CNN’s exclusive reporting that terrorist organizations are trying to plant explosives in computers and other electronic devices for potential detonation on airplanes. As also reported by CNN, US counterterrorism agencies believe that terrorist groups have gotten hold of security equipment to test these new concealed explosives.
This intelligence is allegedly what led to the Trump administration’s recent “laptop ban,” which required passengers from designated airports traveling to the United States to check their laptops and other large electronic advices.
But just because the intelligence is there doesn’t mean that the response was coherent, or justified. The laptop ban should still be revised or aborted.
To state it more bluntly: Why would the US’s focus only be on international flights from certain countries to the United States?
Presumably, our interest is making airline travel safe for Americans everywhere around the world. The fact that the United Kingdom has its own laptop ban, with different designated airports, adds additional confusion to a measure that is impacting majority-Muslim countries, many of them already suspicious of the Trump administration.
This is not to say, in the face of new intelligence, that our security apparatus should do nothing. But just “doing something” isn’t enough. If there were a specific and credible threat about terrorists’ capacity to bring down an airliner with laptops, then it seems unimaginable that we wouldn’t have a global laptop ban.
Simply put: new intelligence often requires a response, but not every response is equally appropriate. Even assuming that this new laptop threat is real, terrorist organizations would still have to complete a number of steps to bring down a jetliner.
Without detection, a bomb maker would have to acquire the technology and equipment to make the bomb; find someone who can make it onto a major flight through an airport where his name, data and other identification would be evaluated; ensure that person can detonate in a suicide attack; and guarantee the bomb works. It isn’t impossible – a version of this scenario occurred on a flight from Mogadishu in 2016 – but those terrorists had assistance from airport workers who passed the laptop bomb through an X-ray machine.
The tendency to view any security effort – such as the laptop ban – as essential when a new threat arises is understandable, but every security measure must be weighed against three criteria: does it minimize risks; does it maximize defenses; and – as importantly – do the consequences of the security measure so alter the nature of how we live and move that it isn’t worth the investment.
It is true that the interconnected nature of our world makes terror threats more mobile and terrorists able to strike harm far from where they train. It also means that even a minor terror attack can achieve global notoriety. But these dangers of mobility are matched by its benefits. Our world is more accessible to more people, which in turn enhances our global economy.
Put another way, we can make air travel safer, but we will never make it (or any major transportation system) completely safe. The goal – whether it be with planes, cargo or mass transit – it to minimize the risk as much as is practical.
The numbers speak for themselves. Over 2 million people fly a day domestically; there are over 100,000 flights globally every 24 hours. Each security measure has to be weighed against the potential disruption to that system.
This is where the laptop ban seems a draconian response to a credible, but not specific, threat. That terrorists want to evade our security systems is not a surprise; we always should assume they are trying to get one step ahead of us.
But if a laptop has the capacity to be used, undetected, as an explosive, then why target specific airports and focus on carry-on luggage? The US government has not made any effort to explain whether the laptop can or cannot be detonated even if it is stored in cargo. And if these airports, many of them quite modern, do not have satisfactory detection capability, surely many more airports fall into that camp. What does the current measure include to address that problem?
We know terrorists come from all over the world, including from our own Western allies. So absent further information about how these specific US and UK measures will actually keep us safer, we need more refined and specific alternatives. Some of these involve specifically targeting bomb makers and military efforts where they could reside. They also include the immediate updating of airport technology, instituting longer and more thorough “laptop” checks at specific airports, and public education campaigns to educate airline passengers about potential risks.
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It is the nature of our day and age, unfortunately, that terrorists will seek to identify and exploit new vulnerabilities. But our responses must be tailored to the specific, potential harm and we must be cognizant of their impact on our global networks. The laptop ban, as presently implemented, still does not satisfy those standards.