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COVERT ACTION AGAINST AL-QAIDA

President Bush has taken a needed and proper step in ordering the Central Intelligence Agency to attack Osama bin Laden and key elements of his al-Qaida terrorism network. At least part of this war on terrorism must be waged in the shadows where terrorism lives.

Of course, that is already being done. Bush's "intelligence finding" basically emphasizes the CIA role in this effort and focuses funding on the hunt for bin Laden, but it doesn't broaden the CIA's legal powers. As the head of a terrorist organization, bin Laden is not covered by a 1976 ban on political assassinations.

His role as head of al-Qaida, which declared war on the United States with its Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, makes him a legitimate target. His capture -- or death -- would be a valuable part of the effort to destroy al-Qaida as a hub of terror. The CIA simply provides one more avenue toward that end.

Terrorists have benefited from America's emphasis in recent years, especially during the Clinton administration, on technological intelligence-gathering instead of the often down-and-dirty "human intelligence" that would have helped analysts make sense of the mass of data, intercepted communications and other leads that Cold War-style technical spying managed to gather. The price for that lapse, it is far easier to see in retrospect, has been unacceptably high.

Now the spy agency has been asked to play catch-up before terrorists exact an additional payment. That will take the $1 billion and the direction that have now been given to the CIA, but unfortunately it also will take time. "Without moles, without people buried within the organization whom we've 'turned,' it's very, very hard," noted New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a veteran of years of organized crime investigations.

Still, the effort has to start. Bin Laden has forfeited any claim to forebearance. Unlike even Saddam Hussein, head of an enemy state but not actively engaged against us militarily, bin Laden has no case for immunity from attack in a war he unleashed. If the CIA needs to kill him to cripple his organization of murderers, so be it.

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