That Sochi “Toothpaste Bomb Plot”

This one was all over the media a couple of days ago:

The US has warned airlines with direct flights to Russia that explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes could be smuggled onto planes.

….Unnamed US security officials were quoted as saying there were fears toothpaste tubes could be used to smuggle explosives which could then be used to assemble a bomb either in flight or upon arrival at the Olympics.

…The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that “out of an abundance of caution” it “regularly shares relevant information with domestic and international partners”.

“While we are not aware of a specific threat to the homeland at this time, this routine communication is an important part of our commitment to making sure we meet that priority,” it added.

Homeland Security chair Rep. Michael McCaul had a little more detail, speaking on CNN:

I’ve been briefed on this actually today, but the terror threat has been around for several days. I find it to be very specific and incredible. At 2:00 today, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to airlines, particularly flights going out of Europe into Russia warning about this potential threat where explosives can be put in toothpaste containers and cosmetics on board either to detonate on the airline itself or to possibly smuggle into the Olympic village.

So this is a serious threat. I know that Homeland Security officials are taking a lot of precautions in terms of tightening up screening at the airports to ensure that these explosives, if they’re on airplanes, they’ll be able to stop them.

For ABC, this amounts to “Sochi Toothpaste Bomb Plot Ongoing, Sources Say“, but the whole thing is actually rather vague, and there is nothing in the DHS statement that we didn’t know already: small containers for gels and liquids have been a focus of airport security for some years now, and we take it as standard that a major international public spectacle will require extra security. We also know there are terrorists in Russia and that one group, Vilayat Dagestan, has made a specific threat against the Sochi games. Russia actually instituted a ban on liquids on airplanes for the duration of the Olympics and Paralympics a month ago in response to this general context.

McCaul’s interview doesn’t take us much further, either – there has always been a “potential threat where explosive can be put in toothpaste containers”; the question is whether anyone has any specific knowledge of a plot to do so now. The Homeland Security statement specifies that “we are not aware of a specific threat to the homeland”; this does leave open the possibility of “a specific threat” elsewhere, but the overall tone – “abundance of caution… routine communication” – does not suggest the same kind of particular urgency as McCaul’s warning.

Last August, there was general heightened airport alert that led to silly headlines about “breast implant bombs”, while the 2012 London Olympics brought a “cyanide hand cream” scare story.

Terror threats are real, and the Sochi Olympics represents a period of heightened danger. But it seems to me that security authorities, politicians, and the media could do a better job of treating the public like intelligent adults. Or maybe I’m missing the point?

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