War Stories

Looking for Intel in All the Wrong Places

What Washington can learn from Britain’s foiled terror plot.

Police raid in London

Little is yet known about the plot to blow up at least a half-dozen airplanes as they carried hundreds of passengers over the Atlantic Ocean from England to America. But one thing seems clear: The plot was foiled because of intelligence information, much of it provided by a nasty source that has itself been linked to terrorist organizations.

According to the Times of London, Pakistan’s intelligence service worked “closely with MI5 and Scotland Yard” and, at the request of British authorities, supplied information that proved “crucial in thwarting the attacks” and in arresting the alleged conspirators, most of them apparently of Pakistani descent.

If police hadn’t nabbed them in their homes during a sweeping raid, the plotters would likely have sailed through airport security. Metal detectors are blind to liquid explosives. Short of an amazing stroke of luck (along the lines of the flight attendant who sniffed out Richard Reid’s attempt to ignite his shoe bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001), not even the most astute guard would have looked twice at a soft-drink container or at the flash camera that was reportedly to trigger the blast.

By the same token, drones and radar-warning planes can’t spot every potential terrorist scrambling across the border. X-ray machines cannot cope with the vast boatloads of cargo unloaded every day at America’s ports (the standard estimate is that just 2 percent of containers are inspected). Nor can the radiation detectors deployed along New York City’s bridges and tunnels pick up every gamma ray emitted by every truck that zooms by.

Border patrols and detection devices are necessary tools. Like locks on the front door, they make it harder for terrorists to make plans and wreak havoc. But there’s always a back door or window that can be pried open. Preventing that from happening requires good intelligence, and good intelligence requires contacts with the sort of people who hang around the dark alleys of the world.

There’s a broader lesson here, and it speaks to the Bush administration’s present jam throughout the Middle East and in other danger zones. If the British had adopted the same policy toward dealing with Pakistan that Bush has adopted toward dealing with, say, Syria or Iran (namely, it’s an evil regime, and we don’t speak with evil regimes), then a lot of passenger planes would have shattered and spilled into the ocean, hundreds or thousands of people would have died, and the world would have suddenly been plunged into very scary territory.

It is time to ask: Which is the more “moral” course—to shun odious regimes as a matter of principle or to take unpleasant steps that might prevent mass terror?

The two courses aren’t always mutually exclusive. There are degrees of odiousness, some of them intolerable; and there are degrees of terror, some of them unavoidable.

In this light, it’s worth looking back at an article by Seymour Hersh in the July 28, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. Hersh reported that, in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Syria emerged as “one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against al-Qaeda.” Syria had hundreds of files on al-Qaida, including dossiers on those who had participated—or wanted to participate—in the 9/11 attacks. Syrian spies had penetrated al-Qaida cells throughout the Middle East, and Syrian President Bashar Assad was passing on loads of data to the CIA and the FBI. Some of these tips apparently foiled al-Qaida plots, including a plan to fly an explosives-laden glider into the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters.

Assad’s interests in this exchange were straightforward. As he explained to Hersh, al-Qaida had links to Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which posed a threat to Assad’s own government. “The need to cooperate [with the United States] was self-evident,” he said. Hersh noted a more opportunistic motive: Assad wanted to get off the official U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism; doing so would have allowed Syria to receive aid and investment.

In a passage that’s even more intriguing now than it was three years ago, Hersh reported that, in the fall of 2002, Gen. Hassan Khalil, head of Syrian military intelligence, told Washington that, in exchange for reopened relationships, Syria would impose restrictions on the political and military actions of Hezbollah.

A huge interagency feud broke out over what to do about the Syrian offer. The State Department and the CIA, which particularly valued Syria’s intelligence pipeline, favored pursuing the talks. The civilian leaders in the Pentagon opposed the move; they were in the midst of planning the invasion of Iraq, and “regime change” in Syria was next on their to-do list.

The debate was soon moot. Once the war in Iraq began, Assad stopped the flow. Yet there he was, a few months later, telling Hersh that he was willing to turn the spigot back on again—to no response from the Bush administration.

It’s unclear—Hersh noted as much in his article—where resumed talks might have led. Would Assad really have lowered the hammer on Hezbollah? If he had refused to do so, how far could the United States have pursued the relationship?

Still, the episode clearly shows—as does Pakistan’s recent cooperation with MI5 and Scotland Yard—that the concept of morality in international relations is more complex than President Bush sometimes seems to recognize. Consider this: Had the CIA won the internal debate on whether to deal with Syria, is it possible that the current war between Israel and Hezbollah might never have taken place? How many compromises of “principle” would that have been worth?