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August 11, 2006
Remember The Geography

In the initial reaction to the successful investigation that prevented a massive terrorist attack on the United Kingdom's air industry, people have begun to search for some favored hobby horses. Some point to a Time Magazine article describing the takedown of the terrorist plot , which includes the nature of the assistance America lent to the counterterrorist effort:

Britain's MI-5 intelligence service and Scotland Yard had been tracking the plot for several months, but only in the past two weeks had the plotters' planning begun to crystallize, senior U.S. officials tell TIME. In the two or three days before the arrests, the cell was going operational, and authorities were pressed into action. MI5 and Scotland Yard agents tracked the plotters from the ground, while a knowledgeable American official says U.S. intelligence provided London authorities with intercepts of the group's communications. Most of the suspects are second or third generation British citizens of Pakistani descent whose families hailed from war-torn Kashmir. U.S. officials believe the 29 members were divided into multiple cells and planned to break into small groups to board the nine planes.

This seems significant to those who followed the casual unmasking of the NSA intercept program in December of last year. I have received a number of e-mails from CQ readers (and some people who just spam bloggers indiscriminately) that this shows why we needed the terrorist surveillance program that Bush ordered in the wake of 9/11, and which caused a firestorm of controversy last year when the New York Times blew its operational security. These correspondents point to the success of these intercepts and argue that the NSA program is too vital to modify or shut down now.

I agree, but this is not the best example. Remember that the terrorist group resided in the UK and its communications went between there and Pakistan. None of these intercepts would have involved American locations -- and therefore the NSA would not have to ask for any warrants to conduct its surveillance. No one questioned the need for NSA to listen to terrorist communications overseas without interference; the issue was whether the NSA needed a warrant to listen to international communications when one end of that communication was located in the United States. Obviously, this isn't the case in this plot.

One could certainly argue that this shows the need for such programs when dealing with terrorists within the US. Most people would agree with that assessment, but the specific issue with the NSA surveillance was whether they needed a warrant before conducting the intercepts. Would the terrorists beat our system if the NSA had to wait for warrants before tracking hot intel? It would be helpful to know how difficult it proved to follow the terrorists in the UK in this investigation in order to figure that out. In my opinion, the NSA should have the flexibility in wartime to intercept any communication across national borders where reasonable cause exists to believe it may involve terrorists or their supporters. However, that scenario does not appear to apply here.

Another murky detail seized by some comes from ABC News' blog, The Blotter. Brian Ross reported that part of the success of the investigation came from the discovery of a wire transfer:

Intelligence officials tell ABC News the plot's trail leads to Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, where money for the plot was wired to London.

Officials say two of those arrested in London came here in the last few months for explosives training with known al Qaeda commanders.

Again, e-mailers have been active pointing to this as a supporting argument for the SWIFT surveillance program, also blown by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen at the New York Times. This may have a more solid basis, although it's difficult to tell from the limited description given here. Not all wire transfers reach the level of SWIFT documentation, and some avoid the banking system altogether. The Karachi end of the conspiracy may have used other means, such as Western Union, although its earlier exposure to Palestinians as a cooperator in terror investigations put an end to Islamist uses of the service.

If indeed the money came through SWIFT and our intelligence work uncovered it, then we can say that it saved thousands of lives. We know that one al-Qaeda figure already owes his detention to that program. Until we know for sure, though, the supposition seems rather weak.

We have plenty of time to review the details and push for better policies to make us even more successful in future counterterrorism operations. Until more is known, we run the risk of undermining our own arguments with potentially faulty assumptions.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 11, 2006 5:16 AM

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