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Spies That Cross a Line

United States intelligence-gathering is undoubtedly some of the best in the world. While finger-pointing is not appropriate as the nation heals itself, questions as to how 13 intelligence agencies failed to detect the massive attack on Sept. 11 need answers.

Suggestions that technology wasn't adequate, or that there was a lack of coordination and funding, may well be part of the story. But faced now with a sustained campaign to thwart terrorists, the US may need to use more covert spies. That practice declined as the US moved to high-tech surveillance and chose to avoid associating with "unsavory" foreign agents.

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In the wake of news that a Guatemalan military officer being paid by the CIA was tied to the murder of a guerrilla in 1995, the CIA wisely approved a policy requiring approval before its field officers could recruit agents known to be human rights violators. It does not forbid hiring others with questionable records.

Still, when does the end justify the means in spying on terrorists? And just exactly what does "unsavory" mean?

The Bush administration and Congress need to fine-tune the ethical answers to these questions. Few Americans would have opposed using "unsavory" foreign agents to learn about plans for the Sept. 11 attacks. And yet, how far does the US want to go in paying such agents again and again, perhaps supporting their evil deeds elsewhere?

Like the requirement to seek court approval for a search warrant, so, too, must US spies continue to seek approval before hiring a foreign agent. That may be difficult while infiltrating a tightly knit, secretive terrorist cell. But US spies cannot operate in an "all rules are off" environment without eroding America's moral standing against the use of terror.

Striking a balance between adequate intelligence and honoring civil liberties won't be easy. Americans should join the debate over how far their government should go in using tactics that may be uncomfortable but necessary.