In many ways the September 11th attacks marked a dramatic shift in the nature of conflict, and did so in two very important ways:
1) For the first time in history, the primary threat to U.S. national security is not a nation-state. Rather, it is a network of people unified around a radical interpretation of Islam and who have the goal of creating a pan-Arabic state and destroying nations whose ideologies run counter to their own. Keep in mind, they are at war with the PEOPLE of the West and not the States themselves; this is why they seek to target citizens.
2) The globalized world has enabled Al Qaeda to operate pretty much anywhere. In order for a network of people to operate globally, they must communicate with each other. Thus, a major front in this conflict is cyberspace.
And so begins the next installment of my series on information. Undoubtedly, Al Qaeda is in the process of planning an attack on the United States. Since they have been allowed to reestablish themselves in the tribal areas of Pakistan, they can spend more time operating their network and less time running from the US Military. Indeed, they operate largely with impunity in these extremely remote areas of the world.
Knowing this, there is a premium on having the ability to gather intelligence on their operations, both signals intelligence (the interception of phone calls, e-mails, etc.) and human intelligence (having operatives working on the inside of the network). The more intelligence we are able to gather, the more effective we will be at stopping whatever plans they might have. For example, wouldn't it be nice to know if Al Qaeda is planning to set off a nuclear weapon in, say, Los Angeles? Preferably, we would want to know this well in advance so we can stop it.
Information is now the most important tool the U.S. has in fighting the War on Terror. After September 11th, the Bush administration ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to illegally wiretap American citizens in the United States. Without question, this is unconstitutional and a gross violation of our privacy rights. We have a strong tradition of protecting the privacy of our citizens and it's a bad deal when our president orders actions which completely undermines such a fundamental civil right.
I'm not fully aware of the legal arrangements which have been made since September 11th with respect to intelligence gathering. I do know that there is a process where, if it can be demonstrated that someone in the US has connections to a foreign terrorist network, it is legal to spy on them. Apparently obtaining the warrant required to do so can take a long time, more than 200 man hours on average.
I could go on about this for a long time, but I really wanted to emphasize the importance of intelligence in the context of the threats the US (and the West) are facing from organizations like Al Qaeda. Fortunately, congress (and Republicans in particular) have been very good at making sure that privacy rights continue to be guaranteed.
For anyone who's read 1984, the dangers of a government spying on its own people are clear. While I seriously doubt that something like that would actually happen, it remains an important consideration. My hope is that the Obama administration will place an emphasis on protecting the rights of US citizens, in contrast to the Bush administration. Since President Obama is an expert on constitutional law, I'm pretty optimistic that civil liberties will be preserved in the tradition of our nation.