House Democrats have a message for terrorists plotting to attack America: wait until Saturday.
That’s the practical effect of their decision yesterday to allow the lapse of a key surveillance law. Passed earlier this week by the Senate, the law, known as the Protect America Act (PAA), was a critical foundation for the government’s surveillance of terrorists abroad. Now, thanks to House Democrats’ inaction, it will expire at midnight today.
Not to worry, the Democratic leadership claims. The fact that the government’s surveillance powers will expire “doesn’t mean we are somehow vulnerable again,” Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, insisted yesterday.
In fact it means precisely that. While it is true that intelligence officials still will be able to monitor previously authorized terrorist communications, their ability to expand surveillance to new communications would be severely impaired. Instead of enjoying the flexibility necessary for real-time intelligence gathering, government officials would be forced to revert to the antiquated standards of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the approval of a special court even to monitor terrorist targets overseas. How ensnaring intelligence work in an added layer of bureaucracy makes it more effective is difficult to see.
There are yet other risks involved. As the White House rightly argues, existing intelligence surveillance may be jeopardized if the PAA is not passed. One of the signal virtues of the PAA is the fact that it provides liability protection to private companies, like telecoms, who cooperate with the government and aid surveillance efforts. Companies like AT&T already face multibillion dollar lawsuits from leftist activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who charge that the companies broke the law by assisting government efforts to prevent terrorist attack. With the expiration of the PAA, these companies will lose their legal protections. In the current litigious climate, it is more than likely that they will simply stop aiding the government in its intelligence work. Contra Rep, Reyes and his confederates in the House, the most likely consequence of the PAA’s lapse is that, starting this Saturday, the country will be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
All of which suits House Democrats’ hard-Left allies just fine. Thus, the ACLU has been waging a months-long campaign to get Democrats to rebel against what it calls, with characteristic thoughtfulness, the “Police America Act.” And while Senate Democrats have voted in favor of passage, their counterparts in the House have proven far more pliant. Indeed, instead of voting on vital national-security legislation, House Democrats spent yesterday indulging another pet cause of their partisan supporters: passing “citations” against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for their refusal to cooperate with a politically motivated investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys in 2006. That the president had every right to fire these attorneys is entirely beside the point; yesterday’s show trial was simply a valentine to the party’s leftwing base. Let it not be said that the Democrats don’t have their priorities straight.
To be sure, the version of the PAA bill that passed the Senate is far from perfect. For one thing, the bill vastly expands the role of the FISA court in surveillance work, a prospect that should alarm anyone concerned about intelligence agents’ ability to respond rapidly to potential threats. The bill also expands the role of Congress, requiring, for instance, that the government share documents that it has previously submitted to the FISA court, including documents from the past five years. Not only does this invite second-guessing from the Democratic-led Congress but, and more worryingly, it all but assures that surveillance work will become even more politicized in the future. Such compromises may well have been the price of passage in the Senate, but that makes them no more appealing. Of course, since the House has not deigned to pass the PAA, all complaints about the content of the bill are moot.
At this late stage, the best one can hope for is that Nancy Pelosi and the obstructionist wing of the Democratic party will rediscover a sense of responsibility. Until then, the terrorists’ task has gotten that much easier.