There’s a lot we don’t know about the story of precisely what President Donald Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and whether national security was endangered. But one thing is for sure: the questionable U.S. policy of banning laptops on many flights is suddenly front and center once again.
The original Washington Post story on Monday evening said that Trump “went off script and began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft.” Trump himself has confirmed, in two tweets, that he told Lavrov something related to airline flight safety for “humanitarian reasons” and to boost Russian anti-ISIS efforts.
If the supposedly classified information was focused on the threat from laptops on planes, the Trump administration has been slow to act (and so has Russia). After initially banning laptops on flights from ten airports in North Africa and the Middle East, the U.S. is considering a wider ban on flights from European destinations. But the proposal has triggered a series of talks with airlines and the European Union, hardly the kind of deliberative process one would expect in the face of an imminent threat.
The limited March ban provoked angry and distrustful reactions, as well as theories that it was really aimed at Middle Eastern airlines as international competitors, or at Muslims in general, since Trump’s entry bans had been blocked by courts. Security experts and commentators couldn’t understand why the ban selectively targeted certain airports and airlines, and why it wasn’t enough to require passengers to turn on their laptops during pre-flight security checks.
That additional procedure would be enough to thwart attacks like the one in February, on a flight from Mogadishu, Somalia, to Djibouti. In fact, the very next attempt to bring a laptop bomb onto a plane in Somalia ended with an explosion in the airport’s screening area — a traumatic incident but one almost impossible to prevent: Anyone can bring a bomb as far as the security checkpoint.
Having passengers demonstrate that their laptops are in fact computers and not bombs would probably be the safer option. The U.S., the EU and pretty much every other country in the world considers lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage to be a threat, because they can combust spontaneously. That’s what happened to Samsung’s infamous Galaxy Note 7 devices, but the problem is not unique to them: Deadly cargo jet crashes in 2010 and 2011 were blamed on lithium-ion fires.
In the U.S., loose batteries must be carried in hand luggage. In China, devices with batteries inside go in the hand luggage, too. The reason for that is that a battery fire inside the passenger cabin can be extinguished by the crew. If it happens in the hold, there’s no telling what havoc can be wreaked.
Apart from any object with a lithium-ion battery being something of a potential bomb, laptops and other computers, including phones and tablets, are potential weapons on a plane — and not just because they are murderous projectiles if they go flying around the cabin. Hackers have been able to take control of various flight systems, including vital ones, by gaining access to a plane’s integrated entertainment system.
Security measures are often meant to make acts of terror more difficult rather than rule them out altogether. Putting an explosive-laced laptop in the luggage makes detonating it harder for the terrorist. Requiring that liquids in hand luggage come in small packaging makes it harder to build a bomb in flight. Terrorists, according to this logic, always look for the easiest path, a relatively foolproof plan: Few have the determination to try again. But such a security approach makes pretty much every measure non-obligatory.
In China, but not in the U.S. or continental Europe, security officers confiscate lighters and matches. In the U.S. and China, but not in continental Europe, passengers are told to take off shoes. Different airlines have different rules concerning the in-flight use of electronic devices. It can all be confusing, and it also breeds mistrust and creates the impression that the threats the rules are meant to mitigate aren’t real, or at least not universal.
The world is a dangerous place, but intelligence community leaks and vague scares have no place in a serious debate about protecting flights from terrorists. Policymakers should explain clearly why each regulation is adopted: What the danger is and why other obvious measures — such as turning on laptops rather than putting them in checked luggage — cannot be used. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. has provided a satisfactory explanation for their initial laptop bans. “We have highly classified intelligence and it’s none of your business what it is” isn’t good enough.
Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.