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How the Brits pinched the plotters

August 11, 2006

Reputable news agencies have been agreed that the unraveling of the plane-bombing network in the UK was the fruit of good old fashioned police work. Today, I went scouring a dozen major news outlets in Britain and the U.S., with one question in mind: where did it start? What was the first loose thread on which MI5 was able to begin tugging?

Perhaps it was all there in previous days’ reports. Today, many sources were trumpeting the great value of NSA wiretaps in catching the communique from Pakistan bosses to the bombers, who, freaked by the arrest of two British conspirators on Pakistani soil, to begin operations right away. There’s legitimate drama in that story, which also explains the timing of the sweep-up. And of course most of the accounts did a roundup and summary of the previous week’s news.

But only CNN answered my question. The whole investigation began with a tipoff to the British cops by a concerned Muslim citizen:

The original information about the plan came from the Muslim community in Britain, according to a British intelligence official.”The plotters intended this to be a second September 11th,” said U.S. Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend. “It’s a frightening example of multiple, simultaneous attacks for explosions of planes that would have caused the death of thousands.”

The tip was from a person who had been concerned about the activities of an acquaintance after the July 7, 2005, terror attacks in London, the official said.

Let this be noted, then. At no point did the police operation depend on warrantless wiretaps.

  • The initial tip came from a concerned citizen. In the U.S., this would have given ample probable cause for the government to go to the FISA court and obtain a warrant. The court has rejected only two requests out of more than 5,000 since its inception.
  • The wiretap which caught the “do it now” message was also legal under the standard FISA law. As a Pakistan to UK call, it did not involve a “United States person” and the sternest critic of Bush’s illegal wiretapping programs would agree the FISA framework already allows such calls to be monitored without warrants. But even if the same scenario had played out in America rather than in the UK, cops already knew about the callers and the called through normal police work, and there would have been no difficulty whatsoever in obtaining a FISA warrant.

The acolytes of Dubya’s New World Ordure will be leaning hard in coming weeks on the notion that “NSA wiretaps” were crucial to breaking this case. They will fail to mention that it was not illegal wiretappers, but alert citizens, who provided the real break, and they will fail to mention that every wiretap involved was one for which the normal warrant procedure would have worked just as efficiently.

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