From the Editor

Footprints and Dragnets

Talk about luck: A reporter on assignment in Afghanistan, looking to get his computer fixed in Kabul, winds up buying a used laptop and a hard drive and discovers that they hold more than 1,700 files comprising the records of an Al-Qaeda scout with the code name “Abdul Ra’uff.”

After consulting with his editor, the reporter allows U.S. military personnel to download the contents of the hard drive and turns over the laptop with its journalistic and intelligence windfall to U.S. authorities.

As the reporter, Alan Cullison, and his colleague Andrew Higgins wrote in the Jan. 16 Wall Street Journal, the computerized log parallels what is known about the pre-Dec. 22 activities of accused shoe-bomber Richard C. Reid. Announcing the federal indictment against Reid in mid-January, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stressed his e-mail trail, alluding to evidence from the Kabul computer files.

Every journalist dreams of a great story falling into her lap. Virtually none of us imagines handing the information over to security agencies. Not exactly adversaries, the press and government institutions in a democracy generally exist in a state of creative tension. But the case of the Kabul computers is a story peculiarly suited to the zeitgeist, in a time when individuals, institutions, and nations alike are taking a fresh look at the ethical and strategic valences of intelligence-gathering and -sharing.

The list of countries cooperating in tracking and snaring alleged terrorists has grown steadily since Sept. 11. Hardly a day passes without news of an arrest stemming from some collaborative venture within the nascent global intelligence network.

Given their historical antipathies, some of the countries on this list make pretty strange teammates. Yet doing their part in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet seems almost irresistible, since many nations see their self-interest served by pitching in for the commonweal.

Unexpected instances of bilateral cooperation have emerged from this new consciousness, such as the Israeli/Indian alliance on anti-terrorism initiatives. In the wake of Sept. 11, both Israel and India have wielded the anti-terror club against their antagonists to strategic advantage, attracting widespread empathic attention.

It didn’t seem to be playing out that way in Sept. 11’s immediate aftermath, when the Bush administration needed to court Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and for the same reason spoke sotto voce about Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. But even Washington’s fancy footwork couldn’t sidestep the fact that its worldwide war on terrorism had to address the bloodbaths repeatedly visited upon India and Israel, regardless of how sticky a predicament U.S. condemnation cre-ated for anti-terror allies Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority.

The U.S. global “footprint”—a favorite term of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell—has only grown larger and more ubiquitous. The Bigfoot role may seem an odd one for a U.S. administration that proclaimed its intention to tread lightly in involvement abroad back in the Edenic era before Sept. 11. But the realities imposed on George Bush and his foreign policy experts late last summer have impelled the United States into complex kinds of engagement with a surprising array of countries.

“Footprint” turns out to be an apt metaphor for the moment. It evokes the sleuthing that by all appearances is making intelligence work more intelligent, as the dragnet to snare terror’s operatives goes global.