WASHINGTON — When an illicit pipe and a foolish joke aboard an airliner touches off a national megascare, scrambling fighter jets and FBI agents, alerting all 4,900 flights in progress and unleashing a media flood, does that mean the security system works?
Or was the reaction to an Arab diplomat’s ill-timed smoke break aboard a flight to Denver on Wednesday night overkill, unnecessarily alarming the entire country, inconveniencing passengers and squandering the taxpayers’ money?
Assessing the government and media response was complicated by the revelation on Thursday that the Qatari diplomat, Mohammed al-Madadi, was on his way to make a routine consular visit to a convicted agent of al-Qaida, a citizen of Qatar who is imprisoned in Colorado.
But officials said that they learned the purpose of the diplomat’s travels well after the plane landed, and that they did not believe Madadi had any ties to terrorism. Still, the bizarre coincidence only underscored a widespread view that the huge response was justified.
“From a counterterrorism standpoint, the system worked perfectly,” said Kip Hawley, who served as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration under the Bush administration from 2005 to 2009. “The TSA and counterterrorism officials are on high alert for a very good reason. Al-Qaida is going to use pregnant women, people with babies, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that they will use a diplomat.”
The possibility of overreaction to perceived threats is by now a familiar problem in the age of terrorism, when a little powdered sugar can set off an anthrax panic or a Coast Guard training exercise can persuade cable television crews that the nation’s capital may be under attack, as occurred last Sept. 11. In this case, however, there seemed to be little second-guessing of the broad security alert in response to a situation that ultimately turned out to have posed no significant threat.
“As far as I have heard, the passengers, crew and authorities all acted calmly and appropriately,” said Ian S. Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Trapped in the War on Terror,” a 2006 book that criticized what he called the exaggerated response to terrorism.
Law enforcement, Homeland Security and airline industry officials, who would speak about the investigation only on condition of anonymity, described what happened aboard United Flight 663 from Reagan National Airport in Washington to Denver. Some details about the flight, which carried 157 passengers and six crew members, varied in different officials’ accounts on Thursday night.
Madadi, 27, a third secretary at Qatar’s embassy in Washington, was confronted by a flight attendant who smelled smoke as he left the forward lavatory near the cockpit.
The flight attendant alerted a federal air marshal on board, and when challenged, Madadi denied smoking but admitted he had a pipe and made a joking reference to trying to set his shoes on fire.
The authorities feared a repeat of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, in which a Nigerian passenger has been accused of trying to assemble explosives hidden in his underwear during a trip to the bathroom. In that case, the would-be bomb fizzled and the man, who later said he had been trained by the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, ended up burning only himself.
The episode on Wednesday evening seemed to echo the Christmas Day events, which led to a sharp increase in the deployment of air marshals, who pose as ordinary passengers and break cover only when there is a security threat.
After the flight attendant and a passenger who followed Madadi into the lavatory both smelled smoke, the passenger found a bag of what the authorities said was tobacco.
One of the two air marshals on the flight then approached Madadi at his seat in the first-class section, showing his badge and identifying himself as a federal agent. Madadi said he had not been smoking but acknowledged that the bag contained tobacco for his pipe.
It was then that he made the remark about setting his shoes on fire, evidently a nervous joke referring to the 2001 episode in which Richard Reid tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoeduring a trans-Atlantic flight.
Within a few minutes, top Transportation Security officials were on a conference call, the Federal Aviation Administration had alerted the pilots of the thousands of flights then in the air of the possible threat, an FBI team had begun to assemble in Denver, and airport authorities positioned fire and safety equipment for the landing there, which took place at 6:54 p.m. NORAD sent the fighter jets to accompany the plane for the final segment of its route.
Intelligence agencies, meanwhile, checked their files for information not only on Madadi, but on the other passengers as well, because security officials had to consider the possibility that a team of terrorists was on the flight.