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August 12, 2006
The Pakistan Problem, And The Return Of FISA

The revelation of the massive terrorist plot on British airlines shows that Islamofascist terror has once again centered in Pakistan, and that the Pakistani government may or may not be up to the task of confronting it. The ISI cooperated in this instance, but Western intelligence has little faith that they will remain consistent in this effort:

U.S. and European officials described Pakistan yesterday as the hub of a plot to down transatlantic flights, saying the young British men allegedly behind the planned attacks drew financial and logistical support from sponsors operating in Karachi and Lahore.

At least 17 suspects in British custody for the aviation plot have family ties to Pakistan, and several had traveled there in recent months to seek instructions and confer with unknown conspirators, intelligence officials said yesterday, discussing several elements of the investigation on the condition of anonymity.

Pakistan's government, portraying itself as a reliable ally against terrorism, said it had made at least seven arrests connected to the plot but insisted that the conspiracy was centered in neighboring Afghanistan. Two of the men in custody there were British citizens. ...

U.S. intelligence analysts say they believe that the principal remaining leadership of al-Qaeda is hiding in Pakistan. Despite increased cooperation between the Islamabad government and Western powers since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they say, the number of extremists inside the country may be on the rise and elements of Pakistan's intelligence services remain sympathetic to their cause.

On Friday, the British government portrayed Pakistan's cooperation as vital in undoing the alleged bombing conspiracy, but some U.S. officials said that five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, they are far from countering, or even understanding, the level of threat emanating from Pakistan's lawless regions and bustling cities.

Two intelligence sources suggested that Pakistan had replaced Afghanistan as a center for terrorist activities and expressed frustration with the attempts of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to exert control over huge swaths of territory.

The diplomatic dance between George Bush and Pervez Musharraf has always had its share of controversy. Musharraf provided almost the only diplomatic recognition to the Taliban during their years of oppressive rule in Afghanistan. He carefully dealt with radical Islamists until Osama bin Laden twice tried to assassinate him, but the coordination between Pakistan and the terrorists groups -- especially in their mutual efforts in the Kashmir -- left the ISI compromised.

This case shows that Pakistan can provide key assistance in the effort against terrorism, at least when it doesn't threaten the ISI's friends. As the Post's intelligence source tells them, the region has cleared considerably of the Islamofascist impulse, even in Pakistan, but Musharraf's failure to control the north and east of his country makes it hard to trust Pakistan for consistent efforts to defeat terrorism.

One other unrelated point comes up in this Post report. Dafna Linzer describes the frantic efforts of the British and American intelligence agencies to run down a number of leads just before the UK arrested the conspirators. The efforts led to a run on FISA warrants:

In the days before the alleged airliner bombing plot was exposed, more than 200 FBI agents followed up leads inside the United States looking for potential connections to British and Pakistani suspects. The investigation was so large, officials said, that it brought a significant surge in warrants for searches and surveillance from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret panel that oversees most clandestine surveillance.

One official estimated that scores of secret U.S. warrants were dedicated solely to the London plot. The government usually averages a few dozen a week for all counterintelligence investigations, according to federal statistics.

The purpose of the recent warrants included monitoring telephone calls that some of the London suspects made to the United States, two sources said.

Earlier, I warned about making assumptions about the nature of the surveillance that caught these terrorists. This clearly sounds as though the NSA program that caused so much controversy did not play a part in this investigation. If Linzer has this correct, it instead showed that the FISA court provided a high level of cooperation to intelligence services, and that the sudden and rather overwhelming demand for warrants did not fatally compromise the efforts to stop the attack.

Does this mean the expedited process used by the Bush administration under its interpretation of Article II of the Constitution is never needed? No, but it does suggest that getting a FISA warrant may not be all that difficult now. It also indicates that terrorists cannot keep themselves from using systems that they know we have penetrated rather thoroughly.

Most of all, though, it shows that we need robust systems of surveillance to protect us from these lunatics. We succeeded in this case and saved thousands of lives, quite literally. Whatever we did right, we need to keep doing it in the future.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 12, 2006 7:59 PM

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