(CBS News) NEW YORK - It's a stunning revelation in the foiled plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner: The triggerman chosen by al Qaeda was actually a double agent who was working for the CIA and Saudi intelligence services.
He delivered the explosive device to U.S. intelligence officials and provided information on the whereabouts of Fahd al Quso, the senior commander of al Qaeda's wing in Yemen, who was killed in a drone strike last weekend. It's an intelligence victory, but it came with a cost.
U.S. intelligence officials faced a difficult decision. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was looking for a suicide bomber. The target: an American jetliner. The only way for intelligence officials to ensure they controlled the plot was to have their own agent volunteer to be the bomber and then hand the bomb to the CIA. The tradeoff: They would lose a source penetrated deep inside the organization - but they would save lives.
There is a balance that needs to be struck when battling terrorism. Indeed, there are several balances to be struck, from the balance of individual freedoms versus the safety of the citizenry to trading a deep cover source to save lives.
Long-time readers of my writings know that I am foursquare against violating individual rights for gaining temporary security and safety. Terrorism is a transient war, at worst, and at it's best, it becomes almost a thing of parody.
This is not to disrespect the families and co-workers of those who have died in any terror attack anywhere, but apart from a few bombs lobbed at ships and Hummers and one or two lucky strikes on American soil, Al Qaeda has hardly made a dent in our collective-- and I stress, collective-- day to day lives.
You want to understand what real terror is like, talk to anyone who lived in Belfast during The Troubles.
Wars against concepts like drugs, or poverty or terror are wars that cannot be won in a traditional sense, but the nomenclature of "war" helps keep the public supporting it. A war against poverty will not eliminate poverty but it can help those who need a hand, and so long as we don't morph "poverty" into "the poor," as the Republicans have, then we might actually have a working society.
Similarly, a war against terrorism is never going to end terrorism. Even if we wipe out Al Qaeda's operative abilities, there will be other terrorists around, and it won't take long for terrorism to spread once more.
A war against terrorism justifies any number of atrocities, but just focus on the fact that under the Bush Doctrine, we've announced to the world that we will march into any nation if we feel they are harboring some nebulous terror group that might have a grudge against us and be willing to act on it.
We've long had the ability to do just that, but until 2001, we've felt it important to respect the sovereignty of most nations, even if we have broken with that vow on occasion, even publicly.
The war on Iraq and, to a lesser extent have demonstrated even that important restraint can be violated willy-nilly now.
Parallel to this new wrinkle in America's posture is a willingness to look inward and harass and even kill American citizens whom we feel might bear us ill will and act upon it. The more we learn that disrespecting civil rights and individual sovereignty abroad bears few repercussions, the more likely we will turn those guns domestically.
After all, look at what two reasonable men have done since 2001. Now imagine someone far more ideological sitting in the White House. It has happened-- John Adams-- and it will happen again. If you think there isn't a possible outcome where a staunch anti-family autonomy President doesn't sit with a Congress willing to do his dirty work, then you have to re-read American history.
Had the underwear bombing been successful, I have no doubt there would have been increased security measures put in place in US airports, from doubling the number of body scanners and pat-downs at airports to who knows what. We would have lost even more civil freedom in the illusion of safety.
So is sacrificing a deep covers friends, allies, and possibly family, is sacrificing a fount of intelligence gathering, worth that price, a little more freedom?