Laptop ban creates skepticism about U.S. credibility—and that’s a dangerous threat

Trump administration’s barring of electronic devices on planes raises more questions than answers

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As President Donald Trump continues to tweet things that strain credulity, the warning we’ve heard from sensible people is this: Who will believe the U.S. government when it has something important to say?

Bob Sullivan, journalist and one of the founding members of msnbc.com

It didn’t take long to test this theory. When the Department of Homeland Security announced it was banning laptops in airline passenger cabins Monday night on planes coming from certain countries, I heard loud and clear from several friends: It’s a Muslim laptop ban! Just like the travel ban from Trump’s first days in office.

It’s an understandable leap, given the list of laptop-banned airports, mainly in Middle Eastern countries.

Related story: In-flight Wi-Fi might open hatch to commercial aircraft hackers

The ban, while terrifically annoying to travelers, is quite defensible, however. Consider the jetliner that made an emergency landing last year in Mogadishu, Somalia, with a hole in its fuselage and one passenger missing. Authorities blamed a Somali terrorist who exploded a laptop bomb at 11,000 feet. It’s believed the bomb had been meant for a Turkish Airlines flight that was canceled.

Laptop dangers in airplanes are real. They’ve been discussed for at least 10 years. Lithium-ion batteries, which are in nearly all electronic gadgets, are volatile. Damaged units can catch fire on their own, or with some prodding. Fortunately, airline interiors are made of incredibly fire-resistant materials. Still, even a relatively small smoke incident at high altitude can be a serious problem.

Or worse. Batteries in the cargo area of the missing MH370 Malaysian Airlines flight are one suspected cause of that flight’s demise. The FAA backed a ban on commercial shipments of batteries back in 2015.

Also, a laptop case is a convenient disguise for a dangerous device. Enough said.

Today’s fliers rely on laptops

So the issues are real. But so are the hassles. Laptops make unbearably long flights slightly less unbearable. I, like you, am terrified of the day that laptop use won’t be allowed on planes at all. I’m also terrified of putting my laptop in baggage, as the odds of theft certainly will rise.

Now comes today’s news. The Department of Homeland Security said in very, very uncertain terms that it had good reason to ban cabin laptops from the airports in its list.

“We have reason to be concerned about attempts by terrorist groups to circumvent aviation security, and terrorist groups continue to target aviation interests. Implementing additional security measures enhances our ability to mitigate further attempts against the overseas aviation industry,” it said.

Reality of threat unknown

It’s entirely believable that the ban could be the direct result of intercepted communications suggesting a specific and credible threat. If so, great work DHS. Way to protect against a real threat.

In a larger sense, if Americans, and our allies, see the DHS as above politics, such orders can be implemented in a much more … orderly fashion. We would all trust that it’s necessary, and will be in effect only as long as needed.

Ban could backfire

However, if the order comes from an administration that appears bent on making life harder for Muslims trying to visit America, things get much more difficult. Instead of complying in good spirit, passengers won’t take the ban seriously. They’ll try to evade it, slowing everyone down. They’ll side with passengers over security, and thus be less likely to “see something/say something.” There will be undue political pressure to lift the ban. Most of all, critical time that should be spent looking for terrorists will instead be wasted hassling business travelers trying to get their work done.

I believe this laptop cabin threat is real. For one, the airports covered by it include “friendly” locales in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Also, according to the BBC, the United Kingdom has followed suit and Canada might do so as well. But I fully understand the eye-rolling this ban was met with, thanks to the Trump administration’s previous bans.

When it comes to fighting terrorism, credibility can help as much as intelligence. America’s credibility is taking hits daily right now. That’s making everyone less safe, not safer. America, to lead, cannot be the country that cries wolf. That’s the biggest security risk of all.

More stories related to airline security:
Recent ‘glitches’ show airlines unusually vulnerable to cyber attacks
Does your airline really understand and provide data security?