The democratization of technology is generally a wonderful thing. The Internet, powerful computers, cellular phones and other such devices, once available only to governments or a select few, are now available to almost anyone.
But with this comes the nagging thought that deadly technologies are also widely available. One no longer needs a standing army to carry out mass destruction; individuals or small groups of bad guys can generate suffering, be it through the use of conventional or unconventional weapons.
Such groups thrive on guerilla warfare tactics. They blend in with the civilian population and launch surprise attacks, as happened on Sept. 11.
Given this reality, the role of intelligence-gathering in uncovering terrorist plots has taken on a dramatic new significance. The CIA, FBI, and other agencies that employ human intelligence or HUMINT, in the Fed's parlance are our first line of defense against the new enemy. They arguably have become the most important function of the US government.
The key to busting up terrorist plots is to infiltrate the groups with real-life humans; satellite photos and other electronic gizmos are not nearly enough.
But America's HUMINT capabilities weakened significantly during the past 25 years, especially in the 1990s. It started with the Church Committee investigation in the 1970s, which was an effort to expose and correct some of the CIA's excesses during the Cold War. But in view of the enemy we are up against now, the changes went too far.
In the aftermath of the Church Committee investigation, scores of Middle Eastern case officers were laid off or forced to retire. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 imposed strict rules on intelligence gathering, and created large bureaucratic hoops that CIA and FBI officers had to go through before they could wiretap suspected terrorists. In fact, FISA-related obstacles were largely responsible for the FBI's decision not to search the computer and apartment of Zacarias Moussaoui (the alleged "20th hijacker") prior to Sept. 11.