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Hold onto your cloaks and daggers, folks. Tracking down Osama bin Laden and breaking up his terror network may require the help of some "unsavory characters," the kind who violate human rights at one time or another.

That's what Vice President Cheney said in a recent interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." After all, he noted, sometimes espionage is "a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business." He's right about that. Recent terror attacks have reignited an old debate: How much should we loosen the handcuffs on our overseas operatives?

Former President George Bush, who also is a former CIA director, and some other former insiders have attacked guidelines that regulate the recruitment of sources who have a history of criminal activity and human-rights violations.

Calling the limits, which were put into place in 1995, "ridiculous," former CIA chief James Woolsey said on CNN that the guidelines were "like telling the FBI to penetrate the Mafia without putting any criminals on its payrolls."

Well, not quite. Nothing in the guidelines forbids case officers from putting unsavory sources on the CIA's payroll. The rules merely require case officers to alert their supervisors beforehand. Cooler heads in the CIA see the guidelines as a safety net. Without hampering covert operations, the rules help provide some cover to agents when a questionable character turns out to be an embarrassment.

Embarrassments do happen sometimes. Everyone knows the CIA has worked with numerous "unsavory characters" over the years. Sometimes it is a part of the craft of spying. Sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief -- or a terrorist to catch a terrorist.

But sometimes one government's information source can be another government's terrorist. Or you can have a "blow-back" problem, which occurs when the chickens you put out during one operation come home to roost in deadly ways years later. Or you can have a "disposal" problem, which is what happens when an operation is over and you end up leaving your local sources to fend for themselves.

In fact, one blow-back-producing unsavory character was a guy named Osama bin Laden.

Yes, the heir to a wealthy Saudi family (which has since disowned him) was one of many bright, young religiously inclined men that Pakistan's intelligence agency recruited and trained with CIA assistance in the late 1970s to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Significantly, it was not a right-wing warmonger who got us into Afghanistan, but that emperor of peace, President Jimmy Carter. At National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's urging, Carter signed the directive to supply covert aid to the young mujahedeen ("holy warrior") movement. Later Ronald Reagan's administration eagerly embraced the policy. With American money, data and Stinger missiles, the CIA helped the mujahedeen knock down hundreds of Russian helicopters in a 10-year war. But once the mujahedeen had rid themselves of the Soviets, who surrendered in 1989, the Americans were done with the mujahedeen.

We pulled out and the Taliban moved in. With help from Pakistan and the Saudis, the Taliban grew from an obscure puritanical sect of religious students into a pro-Islamic ally for Pakistan against India.

Bin Laden and many others returned to their homelands, where they ignited a new wave of militant Islamic fundamentalism throughout the 1990s across the Muslim world. Occasional headlines of death and destruction in Algeria, Egypt, Chechnya, the Philippines and elsewhere made little dent in the attention of most Americans as we enjoyed the prosperity of the 1990s.

Now, the terrorist attacks in our own country have resulted in a new war on terrorism that sounds like an international toxic waste cleanup. At the center is bin Laden, an unsavory character worth catching by any means necessary. Americans paid a terrible price for the failure of the FBI, CIA and others to keep track of the international terrorist network.

Now we have a lot of catching up to do in 50 countries or more. That's how wide the post-Afghan terror networks have spread. No one should be surprised if our operatives employ "unsavory characters" to gain crucial information. But history tells us we should be careful in this dangerous game. Our questionable friends can help us solve an old problem, then help create a brand new one.

Chicago Tribune

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