Even by the standards of the “security theater” era, do these rules make sense? At the moment none of us on the outside can know.
There’s some evidence in their favor. The Brits have followed up with their own version of the limitation, which counts for something. The limitation is crafted more or less the way a restriction would be if it were based on real intelligence, with specific locations and flights. Perhaps most reassuringly of all, the policy was announced not in a pre-dawn tweet from Trump or in a rally ad-lib but in the understated way a bona-fide security change would go into effect.
On Tuesday evening, The Daily Beast reported that the ban was based on information seized in the January raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen, citing three intelligence officials. That reportedly included evidence of the group’s successful development of battery bombs that could fit inside a laptop, but which would need to be manually triggered.
But there’s also plenty of reason for skepticism, as security-minded writers like Zeynep Tufekci were quick to point out. If laptops are that big a threat, why only on these routes? If the worry is about bombs, wouldn’t they do just as much damage in checked baggage in the hold? (That is where the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, was placed by Libyan agents in 1988.) Won’t this be a gigantic hit to business travel on the affected airlines, since travelers won’t be able to use computers and would worry about theft from or data interference in equipment they had to check? Since the affected routes involve Muslim countries, is this just the perfection of Rudy Giuliani’s vision of disguising a “Muslim ban” to look like something else?
You can read additional skeptical interpretations from Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman in The Washington Post (Trump, they say, is “weaponizing interdependence” and, purposefully or not, favoring U.S. carriers over their competitors) and Daniel Gross in Slate (who says this is “misguided and xenophobic,” as well as being “a giant middle finger” to the world’s business travelers.)
But here’s the real point: if this change had come from the Obama administration, whose policies I generally supported, I would have assumed there was some real-world evidence behind it. If it had come from the George W. Bush administration, whose foreign policy I generally opposed, I would still have thought, They’re probably not making this up. Indeed, one of the most intrusive security changes during the Bush years—the ban on all but tiny quantities of liquids aboard planes—may have been excessive, but it had an argument behind it (and eventually a famed “underwear bomber” case as illustration, as Bruce Schneier explains here).
That is: I didn’t “trust” the GW Bush administration in the largest sense, and I specifically disagreed with its Just trust us! claims about classified intelligence behind its most disastrous strategic choice, to invade Iraq. But looking back I realize that on breaking-news security matters like TSA rules, even I assumed it was dealing in the real world of knowable facts.
After what he has said about crowd size, about wiretapping, about birtherism, about what James Comey was testifying (even as the rest of the world could watch it on TV), no sane person can assume that Donald Trump is operating in that same realm of knowable fact. The instant skepticism about the laptop ban is the first case showing why that matters: He needs us to trust him, and we can’t.
There will be another case. And it will matter more.