- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

Here’s a Reuters headline from New Year’s Day: “CIA may need decade to rebuild clandestine service.”

A decade, huh? Circa 2016, you mean? The last time I checked the job-completion estimates was back in spring 2004, when the agency’s then director, George Tenet, told the September 11 Commission it would take another half-decade to rebuild the clandestine service. In other words, three years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was saying he needed another five years.

As I wrote at the time, “Imagine if, after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt had turned to Mr. Tenet to start up the OSS, the CIA’s World War II predecessor. In 1942, he’d have told the president not to worry, he’d have it up and running by 1950.”

But CIA reform is like the budget for Boston’s Big Dig or the 2012 London Olympics. Think of a number, triple it and update your excuses. Four years after September 11, it may take 10 years to rebuild the clandestine service. So Mr. Tenet would tell Roosevelt not to worry, we’ll have the World War II intelligence operation up and running in time for the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. OK, make that the Cuban missile crisis. But definitely by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The latest estimate came from Gary Berntsen, the CIA man on the ground during the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in late 2001. That’s what most folks think the agency does, just as “clandestine service” is assumed to be the core activity — all the super-top-secret undercover stuff you see whenever the CIA turns up in movies like “Syriana,” in which the sinister spooks subvert a Middle Eastern government. Oh, if only. Away from glamorous silver-screen adventuring, alas, the only government they’re good at subverting is the United States’.

It’s very hard to right a terrorist war without intelligence. By definition, you can only win battles against terrorists pre-emptively — that’s to say, you find out what they plan to do next Thursday and you stop it cold on Wednesday. Capturing them on Friday while you’re still pulling your dead from the rubble is poor consolation.

For example, in 1988, a British SAS unit shot dead three Irish Republican Army members on the streets of Gibraltar. The United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Committee acted on information the cell planned to blow up the changing-of-the-guard ceremony on the Rock. The two men and a woman were subsequently found to be “unarmed,” and various civil liberties groups protested and critical TV documentaries were made. But there was no dispute that they were IRA members and had bomb-making materials in their car. If the state cannot act until its sworn enemy uses those materials, it had better be prepared to lose the war.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the obvious. But, unmoored from reality, wafting happily into Fantasy Land safe in the hermetically sealed Democrat-media bubble, Sen. Barbara Boxer and her colleagues apparently considering impeaching the president for eavesdropping on al Qaeda calls to U.S. phone numbers. Surely even Karl Rove can’t get that lucky.

I would love to see the witness list for the trial: Mohammed al-Jihad testifying that a week before he blows up a Bali nightclub he always makes a perfectly innocent call to his cousin in Milwaukee to ask how the kids are; Abu Musab Zarqawi testifying he only called Howard Dean to complain about congressional Democrats stealing his rationalizations, etc.

The Democrats and the media want to upgrade every terrorist into O.J. Simpson, insulated by legalisms and entitled to his own dream team. (Their figleaf, the court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which previously denied not a single request, has turned down hundreds in the years since September 11.) The practical effect of the Democrats’ approach is to extend constitutional protections to any dodgy character anywhere on the planet who has a U.S. telephone number in his Rolodex. Indeed, given that perfectly ordinary cellphones can be used almost anywhere — this week, I spoke to an American in London by dialing his Washington cell number — if the Democrats have their way, all terrorist cells in Europe or Pakistan could put themselves beyond the reach of U.S. intelligence by simply having a New Jersey-based associate place a bulk order for Verizon cellphones.

This isn’t hypothetical. Consider Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen also known as Mohammad Rauf and nailed by U.S. intelligence through interception of foreign-U.S. communications. He was convicted in 2003 for doing the legwork on an al-Qaeda scheme to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. A “hard-working truck driver,” he was introduced to Osama bin Laden while enjoying a well-earned vacation at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan in 2000.

At the request of bin Laden aides, he researched terrorist possibilities of “ultralight” aircraft. In 2002, al Qaeda commissioned him to return to America and procure materials for severing suspension-bridge cables and derailing trains.

Do you want Iyman Faris in jail? Or do you think he should have the run of the planet until he actually destroys the bridge and kills hundreds of people? Say, the Golden Gate Bridge just as you’re driving across after voting for Barbara Boxer and congratulating yourself on your moral superiority.

But, if you want Iyman Faris in jail, you better consider how you will get him there — because, as a rule, the only way you discover details of a terrorist plot is by intercepting communications. And these days that means electronic communications, like telephones.

If Iyman Faris was sporting enough to communicate with his handlers in Pakistan through sealed parchment delivered by steam packet via the Cape of Good Hope, no doubt the Democrats and media would be happy to consider allowing surreptitious unsealing in international waters, provided you get a warrant from the Hague.

So that’s where we stand four years after September 11. The arthritic $44 billion intelligence bureaucracy is insisting it still needs another five to 10 years to have a clandestine service capable of infiltrating al Qaeda operations in the field. But, while we’re waiting, don’t think of using that $44 billion to keep tabs on their phone calls, because the Dems will impeach you.

According to a Rasmussen poll, 64 percent of Americans believe the National Security Agency should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorist cells overseas and U.S. residents; 23 percent disagree. What is it the Democrats and media don’t get about this?

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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