- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

Can we all agree now on the necessity of uncompromised terrorist surveillance programs? British authorities said yesterday that “an unprecedented level” of surveillance of meetings, spending, travel and “the aspirations” of terrorists was the key to unravelling yesterday’s horrific plot to blow up transatlantic airliners in flight. This may or may not be the result of a “terrorism surveillance program” so controversial of late, but it surely demonstrates the need.

We shudder to think what would have happened in the coming days had the New York Times gotten hold of British or American airline antiterrorism investigations prior to yesterday’s arrests. A successful attack would have cost the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent passengers travelling from the United Kingdom to North American destinations. People would have been incinerated over the Atlantic Ocean by fanatical Islamist terrorists in an attack which Home Secretary John Reid rightly calls the biggest terrorist threat Britain has ever faced.

The plot-foiling resulted from good intelligence work by British security services in conjunction with Pakistan and U.S. intelligence agencies. 24 suspects were in custody late Thursday, some or all of whom are reported to be British Muslims of Pakistani descent and citizens of the United Kingdom.

“During the investigation an unprecedented level of surveillance has been undertaken and that surveillance has had as its objective to gather intelligence and evidence in support of the investigation,” said Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police Service Antiterrorist Branch. “We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people. This has involved close co-operation not only between agencies and police forces in the U.K. but also internationally.”

Is this a “terrorist surveillance program”? Possibly, possibly not. But even if it isn’t the type of program which Democrats and civil-libertarian maximalists so fashionably decry lately, it shows why those programs continue to be so necessary.

They were invaluable just two months ago in Canada, when successful surveillance of Islamist Internet sites led Canadian intelligence to thwart a major terrorist attack in and around Toronto. But nearly everyone seems to have forgotten about that near-catastrophe and its important lessons.

So simple an item as a carry-on bottle filled with combustible liquids can be the kind of vulnerability which radical Islamists stand ready to exploit. It’s time to stop the pretenses about terrorism surveillance. They don’t threaten our civil liberties; they save lives.