Thursday, August 10, 2006

British terror plot foiled

Yeah, me and a million other blogs noticed.

British authorities said Thursday they had disrupted a well-advanced "major terrorist plot" to blow up passenger flights between the United Kingdom and the United States using liquid explosives, prompting a full-scale security clampdown at U.S. and British airports and a cascade of delays in transatlantic flights.

The plot was well planned, well financed and "well advanced," U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said at a news conference Thursday morning in Washington. It was "about as sophisticated as anything we've seen in recent years as far as terrorism is concerned. . . . This was not a situation with a handful of people sitting around dreaming about terrorist plots."

The Brits arrested 21 people, and speculated that the plan bore all the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda operation.

First, nice work by the Brits. This was a real plot, with real bad guys -- unlike, say, the doofuses we arrested in Miami a while back. These are the kind of people we are talking about when we discuss fighting terrorism.

Even better news, despite breathless hyperbole from some right-wing sites about how close we came to disaster, is that the plotters had been under surveillance for months. The cops moved in when it looked like the plot was about to be set in motion. So the actual danger -- from this plot, anyway -- was practically nil thanks to good police work.

Predictably, a lot of Bush backers are trumpeting this as evidence we need to give the government even more intrusive surveillance powers. They criticize people who oppose "surveillance" of terrorists.

Speaking as one of those people, however, they're misstating the debate. The issue isn't "should we fight terrorists?" It's not "should we use wiretaps?" It's not "Should we take security concerns seriously?"

It's about method, not goal. It's whether serious inroads on civil liberties are really necessary in order to make us secure. It's whether, even if such methods make us somewhat more secure, they are worth the loss of freedom.

Just as an example, nobody I've run into opposes wiretapping suspected terrorists; many of us just think the government should have to get a warrant to do so. That's not being "soft" on security. It's taking seriously the threat of government abuse of power.

But that's neither here nor there at the moment. A plot was foiled. For one day, let us merely be thankful.

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Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

Agree with everything you say. Thank God for the British. With respect to surveillance, my feeling has always been that it's naive for liberals to pretend that nothing has changed. But the war on terror rhetoric is equally dangerous. Calling this a war on terror has allowed Bush to assume powers that are supposed to be temporary but, given the nature of this conflict, are likely to be permanent. At the very least, the administration should be willing to accept some theoretical limit on presidential powers, but they aren't even willing to do that.

And, oh yes, is there any evidence that this plot was foiled by the NSA's surveillance program?

8/10/2006 2:32 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Agreed on the first graf. As for the NSA program, if it was helpful it would have been equally helpful pre-9/11, since the NSA was created to spy on overseas bad guys.

The more interesting question will come up if and when the NSA program leads to a foiled plot. The questions then will be meaningful: Could the plot have been foiled without warrantless wiretapping? And was the result, whatever it is, worth the intrusion?

8/10/2006 3:42 PM  
Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

It's a tough question because you never can prove something that didn't happen, ie, that the plot would have been stopped anyway.

I think we have to recognize that, given the magnitude of the threat, people are more willing to accept restrictions on civil liberties if it seems to be necessary to stopping such attacks. The argument that "those who are willing to trade liberty for security deserve neither" is fine in principle, but it simply neglects the reality of a world where terrorists can kill lots of people. It's not irrational for people to say that my life (even if the odds of a specific person getting killed are negligible) is worth more than an abstract civil liberty.

I just don't think there is an easy answer here. Clearly, if you wanted absolute security, you would simply repeal the bill of rights and live in a police state. No one wants that, but how do you balance a threat of terrorism that is real, but, for most people likely to be remote, with civil liberties that do not affect most people's everyday lives but go to the very heart of our society. I don't know but I wish it was a question that the Bush Administration seemed to be more concerned with. I can say one thing; if I'm getting on board a transcontinental airliner once they are finally cleared, I'm not going to give a damn if my phone has been tapped.

8/11/2006 10:18 AM  

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