Two sets of questions surround the foiled terror attacks, about which we don't know, and may never know, the answers.
First, what kinds of surveillance and tracking methods did MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service, use to uncover the plot, and would they be permissible in the United States?
Second, what methods did Pakistani intelligence use to interrogate terror suspects who provided information described as crucial to the investigation, and would American intelligence legally be permitted to use the same techniques?
As you ponder those questions, remember that the great issues of the day in this country with regard to terrorism revolve around whether the Bush administration acted illegally in tracking international wire transfers and international calls involving terrorism suspects.
Note from CNN: Two of the London suspects "received a wire transfer of money from Pakistan."
Note from Time: "U.S. intelligence provided London authorities with intercepts of the group's communications."
And the reaction to the disclosure of those programs to protect the American people, aside from Pulitzers, has been the threat by some Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Bush should they take control of Congress in November.
The United States is facing an enemy that is intent on the mass murder of civilians, and we're consumed with scrupulous adherence to Marques of Queensbury rules and scoring some cheap, partisan points in an election year.
There's no shortage of commentary decrying conservative fearmongering. But liberal fearmongering that's another story. Democratic leaders seized on the British plot as evidence that the United States is "less safe" under Republican leadership. At least they seem to accept the reality of this latest threat rather than attributing it to some scheme by Karl Rove to gin up fear in the electorate.
But let's dispose of the "less safe" myth by noting that the London plot was essentially a rerun of al-Qaida's 1995 Project Bojinka. That operation had the goal of bringing down 12 U.S.-bound airliners with liquid chemical explosives. The bombers planned to carry onboard the key ingredient in contact lens solution bottles.
Philippine authorities uncovered the Bojinka plot almost completely by accident without the cooperation of international intelligence agencies. And that plan for mass murder of Americans was to have taken place at the height of U.S. engagement in the so-called Middle East peace process and a full eight years before the war in Iraq.
There are no simple solutions to the dilemmas posed to free societies by the war on terror. No amount of political platitudes can alter the fundamental trade-off between security and civil liberties. Defining that trade-off is an art, not a science. And everything about the American experience and in the American instinct tells us to err on the side of civil liberties.
But our experience with security comes from conflicts with conventional enemies. And a passion for life and freedom, rather than death and martyrdom, inform our instincts. With the revelation of the London plot, it's possible that our solicitousness for the rights of terror suspects has put us in more danger than we imagined.
Do we want in the United States the British model of domestic intelligence no constitutional guarantees of individual rights or separation of governmental powers, with a MI5-type agency limited by the political authority of the White House to the exclusion of the legal authority of the courts?
Do we want something on the order of Pakistan's ISI, which human rights groups cite for the widespread use of torture?
The answer to both questions is, of course, no.
But do we need to take national security in the war on terror out of the realm of partisanship, as it was during most of the Cold War? And should we give our law enforcement and intelligence agencies reasonable tools to defend the nation against terrorist attack?
It shouldn't require the bombings of passenger planes and the loss of several thousand more lives to answer those questions.