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December 27, 2003
LA Times: Applaud the Non-Event

The Los Angeles Times published an editorial today which reminds us that good intelligence and pre-emption can keep terrorist strikes from appearing, and that the lack of hard evidence of a terrorist mission does not mean one did not exist:

Most national security intelligence is elusive, a connecting of dots — intercepted telephone calls, overheard conversations, confessions by people who know fragments of a plan. The result may be an unprovable negative: an event that does not occur.

Thus it was when U.S. officials warned French counterparts about hints that an Air France plane would be used to attack Los Angeles on or around Christmas. The French heeded American requests and canceled six flights, and Los Angeles celebrated a peaceful holiday. Some inconvenience resulted, but how could security personnel have failed to act? The use of commercial airliners as bombs to kill thousands of people on 9/11 demands that credible threats be taken seriously.

Of course it is better to be safe than sorry, but my guess is that we will start to hear a hue and cry that we are chasing after our own shadow rather than real terrorist plots. In fact, our partners the French have already made that insinuation in their handling of the same event (via Power Line):

Bush administration officials expressed frustration that al-Qa'eda operatives might have escaped capture after word leaked, early this week, of American concerns about flights from France to the United States over the Christmas period. One official said Washington had been hoping to keep the US-French negotiations confidential, adding that the hope was that "we would be able to lure some of these people in".

However, a French interior ministry spokesman said little evidence of a terrorist plot had been found


One possibility that has not yet been mentioned, at least in published accounts, is that the entire exercise was a counter-intelligence mission by al-Qaeda. This possibility has bothered me since Christmas Eve, when the entire event began. It's no secret that the US has been trying to penetrate al-Qaeda for years, and especially since 9/11. After Saddam's capture, it's clear that American intelligence services have adapted to Arab social structures and have been much more successful in gathering and applying information. Facing that new reality, it would make sense for al-Qaeda to develop strategies to uncover American moles within their organization, or at least the weak points within their communications.

How would this be accomplished? The simplest method would be to disseminate information to their organization, with strategic details changed for specific people or groups. If the information generates a specific reaction from Western security services, Osama and his top lieutenants can easily trace back the details that led to the reaction. Details, for example, such as dates, air carriers, or flight numbers.

Now, this can be a good development, because an terrorist organization obsessed with checking its "six" isn't an organization that can deliver a complicated attack at the same time. However, thanks to the inordinate amount of publicity that the French provided about this investigation and the detailed American response to the media, their intelligence sources are now at extreme risk, and all to come up empty-handed. If indeed this was an al-Qaeda counter-intelligence operation, it was highly successful, and that's nothing to applaud.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 27, 2003 8:22 AM

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Captain's Quarters reports a rare sighting: a sensible editorial published in our very own local Dog Trainer. The editorial notes that the fact that we didn't just have a terror attack on a flight from Paris to L.A. doesn't mean... [Read More]

Tracked on December 27, 2003 3:25 PM

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